Friday, December 20, 2013

Books Read in 2013

I read 30 books this year, the lowest total since I started keeping track.

The main reason I'm down about a book a month is social media. I am addicted to twitter.

I also used to read on my subway ride home each night, but I've spent the majority of my commutes listening to podcasts - Football Ramble, WTF and This American Life being three of my faves.

I also didn't read a book from August to October, likely the longest stretch of my life. No matter what I picked up or tried to read, I was mildly annoyed by it. Couldn't quite put my finger on what was wrong. Then I had my eyes checked. Turned out I needed glasses -- and I've read about six books since I got the new nerdy frames (which I'm still embarrassed by, don't ask).

As usual, I've grouped books into my favourites, the ones I'm glad to have read and those that aren't for me. I've tried to list them alphabetically within each group…


Anatomy of England, Jonathan Wilson 

A look at the creation, evolution and – dare I say stagnation – of English football told through 10 significant matches. Lot of similarities here with hockey where there’s an inherent preference for intangibles over talent and technique. A great read.

Blood Dark Track, Joseph O’Neill 

O’Neill’s maternal and paternal grandfathers were both prisoners of War in WWII. His maternal grandfather was an IRA man, his paternal grandfather lost in the bureaucracy of shifting alliances in British Palestine. O’Neill attempts to get a better understanding of his family and his history by exploring these parallel stories. Very gripping, beautifully written

Death of the Pugilist, or The Famous Battle of Jacob Burke and Blindman McGraw, Daniel Mason 
A sliver of a book but a kinetic piece of writing. I’m a sucker for learned takes on boxing (tried to get some variation of Abbot Joseph Leibling into my son’s name – with no luck) and this book really delivers. Two short stories of about 60 pages each, would be the ideal e-book. 

The Fun Stuff, James Wood 

I’ll admit it. I’m a total, complete James Wood fan boy. His literary criticism is among my favourite things to read and his piece on drummer Keith Moon is hands-down one of the best essays I’ve read. His pieces on Orwell are terrific too.

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, Jonathan Mahler
There’s a machine in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that can assess and produce the exact drink you desire. This being Douglas Adams, no matter what you want, the machine usually produces weak tea. If there was a machine that could assess and accurately produce the exact book I wanted to read, it would make a book just like The Bronx is Burning – a work that expertly combines municipal politics, urban planning and the 1977 Yankee’s pursuit of a World Series. In light of the Disney-fication of New York, the writing on the riots, blackouts and rampant arson of the late 1970s is almost impossible to believe…I absolutely loved this book.

Naples ’44, Norman Lewis
A diary kept by a British intelligence officer who was among the first wave of soldiers into the recently liberated Italy in 1944. Lewis serializes a series of beautiful, disturbing, and disheartening diary entries on the horror of the aftermath of war. 

His entry after the restaurants of Naples begin to re-open after years of shortages and rationing: 

Suddenly five or six little girls between the ages of nine and 12 appeared in the doorway. They wore hideous straight black uniforms buttoned under their chins, and black boots and stockings, and their hair had been shorn short, prison-style. They were all weeping, and as they clung to each other and groped their way towards us, bumping into chairs and tables, I realized they were all blind. Tragedy and despair had been suppressed upon us, and would not be shut out. I expected the indifferent diners to push back their plates, to get up and hold out their arms, but nobody moved. Forkfuls of food were thrust into open mouths, the rattle of conversation continued, nobody saw the tears.
Lattarullo explained that these little girls were from an orphanage on the Vomero, where he had heard - and made a face – conditions were very bad. They had been brought down here, he found out, on a half-days outing by an attendant who seemed unable or unwilling to stop them from being lured away by the smell of food.
The experience changed my outlook. Until now I had clung to the comforting belief that human beings eventually come to terms with pain and sorrow. Now I understood I was wrong, and like Paul I suffered conversion – but to pessimism. These little girls, any one of whom could be my daughter, came into the restaurant weeping, and they were weeping when they were led away. I knew that, condemned to everlasting darkness, hunger and loss, they would weep on incessantly. They would never recover from their pain, and I would never recover from the memory of it.

"like Paul I suffered conversion – but to pessimism" should be my epitaph with a Toronto Maple Leaf emblazoned above it...  

Glad I read them

Behind the Curtain, Jonathan Wilson
A bit of a travelogue with Wilson, one of the best football writers out there, traveling through the former Eastern Bloc countries and writing about their role in soccer past, present and future.

Between Midnight and Day, Dick Waterman
An anthology of writing with each chapter telling the story of a different blues legend accompanied by great original photography. 

Far from the tree: parents, children and the search for identity, Andrew Solomon 
A heavy read. A look at a range of issues, diseases and disorders and the impact of each of them on children and their families. Got some good advice on this one (thanks PB) to read it in chunks over a larger period of time – take one of the issues studied, ingest it, put the book down and return to it at a later date. This book really affected the way I consider disability issues and the chapter on hearing impairments has really stayed with me.

Fixing the Game, Roger Martin
An examination of the problems plaguing the economy and creative solutions from the world of sports. Martin wrote some great op-eds during the NHL lockout and this book is a provocative read, taking many of its economic solutions from the NFL.

Habibi, Craig Thompson
A graphic novel about love, relationships, immigration, culture, religion…beautiful art that matches the storytelling.

Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri
Picked this up just to re-read the wonderful short story The Third and Final Continent and ending up re-reading the entire collection. This is short fiction at its finest.

Into that Silent Sea, Francis French 
Grabbed this after spending an entire day in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum with my kids. A series of pieces on the evolving American space program, it has some fun insights (John Glenn inviting Cosmonauts to his house for a barbecue and catching his car port on fire) but I was hoping for more.

Into the Silence, Wade Davis
The most powerful, depressing and disheartening writing I have encountered on World War I, this book tracks a group of veterans from that war and their earliest attempts to scale Everest led by George Mallory. There is some great writing here, stunning writing, unfortunately Davis has never met a digression he doesn’t like. To say this book is sprawling is like saying Everest is tall. Weighing in at nearly 600 pages, this really needed an editor who could (and should) have reigned-in Davis.

Lost at Sea, Jon Ronson 
So many good essays in this, all of them in some sense touching on disillusionment and disengagement. From visiting the late Stanley Kubrick’s estate, to a possible murder on a cruise line, to a visit with Juggalo fans of Insane Clown Posse. Ronson does a wonderful job observing these strange scenes and making them engaging and, to whatever extent possible,  seem less a part of the fringe. 

Low Life, Luc Sante 
I kept pestering my kids by reading crazy facts from this book out loud. The book offers a look at turn of century New York City, specifically the down and out parts. From the piles of rubbish that were routinely four plus feet high, to the number of dead horses on the streets, to suicide bars(?!?) it’s hard to believe the changes New York has undergone in the past 140 years.

The Map Makers, John Noble Wilford 
I have a bit of a thing for maps (Toby Lester’s “The Fourth Part of the World” is one of my favourite books) and this book is a great look at the evolution of map making from the earliest days of navigation through to satellite technology. The stories that rely on crazy human endeavours were enthralling; sadly the book loses steam as technology takes over the map making industry. The first half of this book is fantastic – the 1735 competition to determine the shape of the earth is simply jaw dropping – a 4 year expedition into Ecuador that left many dead, really great stuff.

My Father and Other Working Class Football Heroes, Gary Imlach
Gary Imlach’s dad Stewart played for Scotland in the World Cup and won the FA Cup with Nottingham in 1959. The author looks at the working class roots of football, his father’s ascension to the top leagues, and the petty politics and harsh economics of sport in the 1960s. A really enjoyable book both from a sports perspective and from the perspective of a son trying to understand his father's life and their relationship.

Nothing if not critical: selected essays on art and artists, Robert Hughes 
I can’t get enough of Robert Hughes’ writing. His book on Goya is among my favourites and the Shock of the New maybe one of the best works of criticism I’ve read. This is a collection of nearly 100 pieces, many written for Time Magazine, on all aspects of art and the art world.

Our Game, John Le Carre
This one was a bit meh. Too many of the tropes from Le Carre’s work re-surface in this one without the tension of his better works. Kinda meanders along and then just ends. 

Sailing Around the World Alone, Joshua Slocum 
The diary of Captain Joshua Slocum, who was the first person to circumnavigate the globe solo. His journey took place from 1895 to about 1900, along the way he encounters pirates, angry tribes, heavy storms and stops in ports around the world to lecture on his progress and the sites he’s seen. A fun, quick, read. 

Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver 
I wanted to like this more than I did. Maybe it’s because much of the book covered ground I’ve read repeatedly elsewhere or maybe it’s because I was expecting more – I’m not sure what it was but I found this one mildly disappointing.

Sincerity : how a moral ideal born five hundred years ago inspired religious wars, modern art, hipster chic, and the curious notion that we all have something to say (no matter how dull), R. Magill
A 500 year look at why we seek "the authentic" some good bits, some tedium... 

The Spirit of Man, Compiled by Robert Bridges
Apparently, this is the book that George Mallory carried with him during his final attempt to conquer Everest. It was a gift from a great friend who also gave me Into the Silence.  A collection of short writings, poems, maxims, etc. assembled by Robert Bridges. I’m not a poetry guy, but there’s enough other interesting material here, all of the inspirational variety. 

The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien 
I read this just about every year. So many great short stories based on the author’s time in Vietnam.  There are times I will find myself suddenly contemplating Lt. Jimmy Cross with a pebble in his mouth, wondering about Martha, separate but together.  Go read it.

War Reporting for Cowards, Chris Ayers 
Hypochondriac British reporter finds himself on the front lines of the Iraq War, really doesn’t like it, buggers off home.  Would have been a smashing magazine article. Not enough here to support a book length piece. 

Welcome to Maple Leaf Gardens, Lance Hornby, Graig Abel
I was lucky enough to provide communications support on the transformation of Maple Leaf Gardens from a defunct hockey rink to the amazing building it is today. I'm also lucky enough to play hockey with Lance Hornby. This is a great book chronicling the rise of one of Canada's most iconic buildings with a heavy emphasis on the Leafs' final 30 years in the building. Wonderful photos from Abel accompany Hornby's prose.

Not For Me

The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach
I didn't dislike this book so much as I disdained it. I would not be surprised to find the Onion wrote this as a satire of the Great American Novel and are waiting for the perfect time to reveal their hoax. I don’t know what was the worst part: Harbach putting great care and detail into setting up his characters and then having none of them act, speak or behave in any way that is congruent with their back story; the completely unbelievable secondary plot of the gay baseball player and his affair with the Dean; or perhaps it was the awkward codes Harbach peppered into his prose, like a first year semiotics student. Near the end, I started reading passages aloud to my wife and we would laugh in disbelief at the third rate writing. What an awful novel.

A Kite in the Wind, Andrea Barret
Want to read b-list and c-list authors prattle on about their methods? This book is for you. Have no idea why I thought it might be for me.

Prophets of Smoked Meat, Daniel Vaughn
I started out envying Vaughn and his pals. They spend almost every weekend driving around Texas searching out the perfect barbecue – be it ribs, brisket, sausages – but by the half-way point I wanted to smack him with a smoker. The more I read, the more closed minded he seemed and the more the book became little more than a 400 page list of Yelp reviews. No matter how good the writing is, it’s hard to sustain chapter after chapter of “got in a car, drove 200 miles to small town, ate 13 servings of barbecue, drove home.” The book is beautifully photographed though; don’t read it on an empty stomach.

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