Wednesday, December 10, 2014

2014: My Year in Books

This was a very good year in reading as I enjoyed almost every single book I picked up. Not sure if that was down to luck, being more selective or getting great referrals and recommendations from friends but I hope it’s a trend that continues into 2015. I also read six novels this year – likely the most I’ve read in 10+ years. And I even loved a few of them… 

The Best 

Boy, Roald Dahl 
Roald Dahl wrote so many great books, but this one might be his best. It’s the first volume of his autobiography covering his parents moving to the UK up to his early 20s. It’s a lesson in using simple words and phrases to tell incredibly powerful stories. I doubt there’s a three syllable word in this collection, yet my whole family read it and loved it. (My wife and son sitting in the next room reading aloud to each other about the death of Roald’s mother made me weepy). So many of the seeds of Dahl’s later works can be found in these wonderful stories, especially his distrust of adults and how awful they can be to children (there was even a chocolate factory next to one of his boarding schools). My Boy did a book report on it and read one of the chapters aloud to his class. Easily one of the best things I read this year.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty 
A surprisingly accessible, very clearly written, and remarkably well thought out book about economics and increasing inequality. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this book – especially the clarity of Piketty’s thesis. There were a few times where I stumbled with the math, but on balance one of the most interesting things I’ve read in a long time. 

Down and Dirty Pictures, Peter Buskind 
I love movies and I’m a big fan of Biskind’s other movie books – this one does not disappoint. An extremely thorough and critical look at the Weinstein brothers and their Miramax empire. Nicely gossipy and biting, the book magnifies the ugly side to the entertainment business and illustrates how powerful people can operate when they go unchecked. A very entertaining read. 

Flawless, Scott Andrew Selby 
I’m a sucker for heists – be it books, movies, magazine articles - you name it. This is the story of an incredible real-life diamond heist that took place in Antwerp. Two years in the planning, the robbers were somewhat undone by the most trivial of items – a deli receipt. It’s a great story, very well told. 

Red or Dead, David Peace 
Peace has a unique style; it’s extremely repetitious yet lyrical. In the hands of a lesser writer this would be awful putrid stuff - the sort of thing that gets a book closed by page three, if not thrown across the room. But in Peace’s hands it’s mesmerizing. This novel is Peace’s interpretation of the Liverpool football club under Bill Shankly from the late 1950s to the 1970s and it’s a tremendous read. I read this right after I finished a book on Homer’s Odyssey and the Iliad, it was fascinating to encounter Peace’s cadence and rhythms in the wake of that ancient text. A terrific book, so glad I read it. 

Romany and Tom, Ben Watt 
The best book I read this year. Consumed it in two sittings, staying up way too late to finish it. Ben Watt, of British pop duo Everything But the Girl, tells the story of his parents – two people whose career trajectories went in opposite directions but who remained together. (Watt’s father was a famous jazz pianist who’s career came undone by the emergence of the Beatles and pop music; his mum, a classically trained actor, reinvented herself in the 70s as a magazine columnist and travelled the world interviewing Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and other big celebs). It’s an amazing re-telling of their lives, their shifting fortunes, their declining health and, ultimately, of the spark that launched their complicated relationship. It’s beautifully written. Watt is staggeringly good at conjuring up images of childhood memories and weaving them into his parents’ lives.

A Rumour of War, Philip Caputo 
 I read Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried at least once a year. It’s been one of my favourite books since it was published 20+ years ago. A Rumour of War is a complementary text in the best sense. It’s Caputo’s take on being among the first Marines into Vietnam in the early 1960s, the senseless deaths, the strange bureaucracy of large organizations and the blood lust of war.  

The Snapper, Roddy Doyle Out for beers with Pat McLean one night and mentioned that Doyle had written one of my all-time favourite pieces on sports. He asked if I’d read the Snapper, I hadn’t. Came home, found it on our bookshelf and read it over that very weekend. What a terrific book it is. Lyrical, funny, insightful – all the hallmarks of Doyle’s work. Glad I went for that beer with Pat. 

Glad I read them 

Barcelona, Robert Hughes Found this under the Christmas tree and read it prior to our first trip to Spain last March. I love Hughes and here he turns his critical eye to the history, politics, planning, art and architecture of Barcelona

Beauty and Atrocity, Joshua Levine 
My family is primarily Irish (with some folks from Lithgow and others from Woolwich), but we’ve never self-identified as such (Orange Order, sure? Irish? Not so much). Last year I read and loved Blood Dark Track and realized how little of Ireland’s history I actually knew, so I picked this up. It’s contemporary history of the Troubles and it’s a very sad read. Well written and disturbing. 

Contempt, Alberto Moravia 
One of the six novels I read this year. Not sure what to make of this one – so much subtext and implicit content – I always feel like I’m missing significant bits of the story. There’s a nice paradox to the writing here – very calm, clear writing about an increasingly tense, unsettling domestic situation as a marriage unravels. 

CopyFight, Blayne Haggart 
My pal Blayne wrote this. Pick it up for the smart overview of how copyright laws and policies came into being, stick around for the clever pop culture asides. 

Flash Boys, Michael Lewis 
 Another  great read from Lewis – follow a Canadian investment executive in New York as he tries to understand how the stock market is being gamed through microsecond arbitrage. All the classic hallmarks of a good Michael Lewis book – smart protagonists trying to understand incredibly complex systems and taking us along on a terrific journey.

A History of the World in Six Glasses, Tom Standage 
 Each chapter looks in-depth at an alcoholic beverage, how it came about and what it meant for society. Some fun stuff. 

The Irish Game: A true story of art and Crime, Matthew Hart 
Once again into the heists (and Irish History – this is like a Venn Diagram of reading interests). Tells about numerous art thefts in Ireland, the gangsters who pulled them off and the fascinating cop who cracked one of the main cases. Good fun. 

Let’s Start a Riot, Bruce McCulloch 
I love the Kids in the Hall. This isn’t a biography so much as it’s a 290 page quirky monologue from Bruce McCulloch riffing on what it is to be pushing 50, married and the father of two. Like all of his monologues, this book has plenty of sharp observations, brutal honesty, strange bits, and solid laughs. Not a typical bio by any means, but worth it for the running Alzehimer’s insurance joke he has with his daughter. 

Making Movies, Sidney Lumet 
Could’ve been called a day in the life – a very factual, by the numbers take on Lumet’s process for starting, making and finishing a film. 

The Manager, Mike Carson 
Not sure what to make of this one. It’s part business book, part sports book, part management mumbo-jumbo. Carson interviews many of the top football managers – Arsene Wenger, Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho, etc. to learn how they approach various facets of football (player acquisition, strategies, tactics, etc.) and tries to apply these lessons to the modern management/ business world. When it works, it’s great; when it doesn’t… 

My Lunches with Orson, Henry Jaglom 
One of the strangest “books” I’ve read. For a few years, Jaglom ate a weekly lunch with Orson Welles and recorded their conversations. Each chapter of this book is a transcript of one of their lunches, two men bullshitting, trash talking, and opining on everything from philosophy to film making to the latest Hollywood gossip. 

Nikolai Gogol, Vladimir Nabokov 
Nabokov weighs in on the works of Gogol, being a big fan of both I dug this a whole lot. 

The Numbers Game: Why Everything you know aboutsoccer is wrong, David Sally and Chris Anderson 
Advanced stats for the footy crowd. Some of this writing was insightful and terrific, other bits were questionable (as to when to sub-on players, I’m very skeptical one can be so precise about timing). 

Unruly Places, Alastair Bonnet 
This book looks at places that aren’t captured by maps – islands in the Bay of Bengal that have been swallowed by the sea, Russian ammunition centres that were left off old maps and have decided to remain off new ones. The chapters that tell the stories of these places are wonderful – the stuff of childhood daydreams – the bits between the chapters made me want to pelt the author with atlases. So over written, such purple prose, such a shame (the subtitle of the book was a dead giveaway that I was getting into Wonderdick territory, "Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies") 

Oh the glory of it all, Sean Wilsey 
A sprawling mess of a book that tries to capture the author’s boyhood, as he split his time between his divorcing filthy rich parents in upper crust San Francisco. You could likely cull 250 pages out of this and not change the book one bit. I suspect each reader would want to remove a different 250 pages. 

On Writing, Jorge Luis Borges 
 The transcripts of a lecture series Borges did at Columbia University in the 1970s. It’s an illuminating look at language, authors, criticism, literature and (ick) poetry. 

Pep Guardiola: Another Way of Winning, Guillem Balague 
A decent biography of the former Barcelona star, manager and current man at the helm of Bayern Munich. The forward and first chapter was nearly enough to put me off, but it was worth sticking with. 

Periodic Tales, Hugh Aldersey-Williams 
I’ve got a bit of a thing for taxonomy and the periodic table of the elements. In this book, Aldersey-Williams spends each chapter examining a single element – how and when it was discovered and by whom, as well as the uses for each element and its place in popular culture (the chapter on lead is some of the best writing I encountered this year). Enjoyed this one immensely.

Psychopath test, Jon Ronson 
I’m a Jon Ronson fan-boy and this book doesn’t disappoint. Ronson takes a course to learn how to identify psychopaths and then sets out to identify/ profile psychopaths in our everyday lives. These range from some disturbing/ hard to believe examinations of the Canadian psychiatric system and some very odd treatment ideals to a hilariously awful interview with a corporate raider and CEO who has some disturbing psychopathic tendencies. The insights into the reality tv industry come as a bit of a shock, though they shouldn't. 

Quiet, Susan Cain
This is one of those books that you find yourself referring to and thinking of long after you’ve read it. A very thorough examination of introversion and what it’s like to be an introvert in a world largely designed for and run by extroverts. As someone who tends toward introversion, I found the insights in this book very intriguing, helped me get a better understanding of how I’ve acted/ felt in many situations over the years (and why open concept offices drive me absolutely batty). 

The Quitter, Harvey Pekar 
A graphic (novel?) autobiography of Pekar, with an emphasis on all the things he quit/ failed at. No warts, failures left uncovered. 

Reading for Survival, John D MacDonald 
I was a HUGE John D. MacDonald fan back in university. I read each and every Travis McGee novel with gusto. This very slim novella is a Socratic dialogue between McGee and his best pal Meyer as they discuss the role of the novel and the importance of reading in modern society. A great little read. 

La Roja, Jimmy Burns 
Burns visits each soccer team in Spain and does a write-up on their origins, stadiums, stars, etc. It was ok. 

Secret Diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 and a half, Sue Townsend 
I had largely forgotten about this book, which was essential reading when I was about 12 years old. When Townsend died in 2014, I immediately grabbed a copy and was stunned at how much of the story and characters I could remember before I had cracked the spine. I must have read this book a dozen times as a tween/teen. Was hoping it might be a fun read for Kid1, but I fear the content is still slightly too adult for her. A fun read and a nice trip back to my childhood.

Soccer Men, Simon Kuper 
A series of bios on the bigger soccer stars of the past few decades. Read it on a plane, it was perfect for that setting. 

Soccernomics, Simon Kuper More soccer + stats / analytics (sorry, bit of a thing for me). 

A Time to Keep Silence, Patrick Leigh Fermor 
Read this on trains in Spain as we travelled through largely empty countryside. Couldn’t have picked a better environment. Fermor writes of moving into a series of monasteries in Europe and what they meant for his writing and his life style. A very quiet, contemplative book about routines, patterns, church services and the monastic life. Wonderful, clean writing with some beautiful insights. 

Why Homer Matters, Adam Nicolson
I have never read Homer but I still enjoyed this book. It’s a detective novel of sorts as Nicolson travels the world in search of clues and understanding of the origins of Homer’s stories and the oral tradition.  There are trips to academic conferences, meetings with aged locals, and visits to long abandoned Mediterranean villages. It’s a nice mix of personal, historical and academic exploration.

Not for Me
The Dog, Joseph O’Neill 
I’m a big fan of the two other O’Neill books I’ve read (Netherland; Blood Dark Track) but this book irked me to no end. A sprawling narrative, an idiot of a narrator, pointless digressions – if it wasn’t by O’Neill I would have abandoned it early on. I wish I had. The Dog is a dog of a book. 

Sex on the Moon, Ben Mezrich 
A true story about students who stole priceless moon rocks from NASA, sadly overwritten by an author clearly in search of a screenplay deal. There might be a great story in here but it was smothered by too many adjectives and too much authorial hype.

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