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The 2016 Reading Report: Q1

I made one resolution for 2016: to read 100 books. Even though 100 felt like an ambitious target, I didn’t think it was insane. I thought back to my high school days, when I would regularly burn through 2-3 books a week and still have time for high school nonsense. I thought about all the wasted time I could freely redirect towards reading (I’m mostly looking at you, Netflix). I made the pledge public on my mailing list, believing that this accountability would keep me on the page-turning straight and narrow.

It was insane.

Unlike high school, I now have work and bills and other commitments that prevent me from shuttering up in my bedroom for days at a time. And, let’s face it, Netflix gets upset when you ignore her for too long, and I really don’t like hurting anyone’s feelings.

I’ve reset my target to 50 books by the end of 2016. I’ll update my progress by quarter. The titles below link to the paperback version on Amazon.ca where possible.

What are you reading? What should I read next? Let me know in the comments.

Q1: 6 books

A Brief History of Seven Killings
Marlon James (Riverhead Books)

What’s the worst possible way to kick off a year aimed at prolific reading? Starting with a dense, 700 page book filled with Jamaican dialects and slang. Still, James’ book has picked up lots of notice, including the 2015 Man Booker Prize, and I’d been looking forward to reading it for a while.

A Brief History of Seven Killings drops us without a map or guide into the violence and political corruption of Jamaica in the 1970s. Tales of gang factions, CIA operatives, drug cartels and an attempted assassination of a musician (referred to only as The Singer who, we assume, is Bob Marley) are introduced to readers a bit at a time from a rotating cast of narrators. James asks a lot of us: to slog through a great deal of depravity and seeming hopelessness without clearly outlining where we’re going. I found the structure very appealing. The patience and deferred gratification he asks for are largely rewarded.

There are points of the book where I found myself scratching my head though. Sometimes the “look at me” cleverness of the writing drew me out of the story. Elsewhere, certain characters appear after a long absence with their previous adventures ignored or unresolved. The final third, which moves the action largely from Jamaica to New York, puts much of the earlier action into more of a historical context, but felt like a sequel that didn’t quite fit.

These aren’t minor concerns, but they don’t negate the book’s ultimate impact: it showed me a part of the world I know little about, but that I now feel something of a connection to and can never forget.

The Art of Asking Your Boss for a Raise
Georges Perec (Verso)

This bit of avant-garde playfulness was first published in French in 1968, at the dawn of the mainframe computer era. Three things of note: the book is written in the 2nd person; it follows a “matrix approach” to storytelling; and it’s one, 77-page sentence.

Either you’ve decided never to read this book, or you’ve already put in a request at your local library.

The concept of matrix literature is fiction that mimics the structure of a computer program. A conflict or challenge appears for which the answer is either yes or no. The next move depends on the previous answer, which is either to advance the story to the next conflict or challenge, or loop back to the last branch of the story.

Oh, what’s it about? It is literally the process of asking your boss for a raise. Not the right words or the right approach, or how to make the most factual arguments for your utility as an employee. It begins with standing up, getting out of your office and seeing if your boss is available for a chat. The hapless narrator goes through a near-eternal matrix of “is he in? Is he in a good mood?” cycles, and if you open yourself up to the structure, the repetition can be quite funny.

And yes, I did choose this book second because it was a 77-page sentence. Judge away.

Best of Rivals: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and the Inside Story behind the NFL’s Greatest Quarterback Controversy
Adam Lazarus (Da Capo Press)

If you carry around any lingering questions about the San Francisco 49ers’ transition from Montana to Young in San Francisco, it’s fair to say that this book will definitively answer them all. I knew that the transition wasn’t smooth; I didn’t realize how much playing time shifted back and forth between these two Hall of Famers before Montana was shipped off to Kansas City. Considering how valuable a true franchise QB is to modern NFL teams–and how few there are to go around–the number of years both quarterbacks played for the same team is something we’re unlikely to ever see again.

Despite my unending fascination with the subject matter, I’d recommend Best of Rivals only to those wanting to know the specific whos, whats, whens, and whys of this relationship. Lazarus’ book is so extensively documented, I often felt I was reading an academic text. We’re still talking about football here. Or, as HoF coach Bill Parcells liked to say, “it’s just a game with a bunch of fat guys chasing a funny shaped ball.”

“Hey Dave,” asks probably no one. “If I did want to read a book about the NFL that was a bit more open to the less obsessive, what would you recommend?” To you, I’d probably say Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff. You can borrow my copy if you promise to take care of it.

Moving Parts
Lana Pesch (Arsenal Pulp Press)

Lana’s book was lent to me by one of my workshop members (I think that’s why I wrote Lana; I feel like I know her already). Moving Parts is a debut collection of short stories from the Toronto-based Pesch. The nine tales focus mostly on the here and now, on the yearnings we have for real connections, and how difficult they are to make and sustain. The title perfectly captures the universe within: the characters in these stories come close to the connections they seek, but by and large can’t help but continue on in their own orbit.

The longest of the stories is “Brotherhood,” concerning a blood oath sworn between two childhood friends. A Scandinavian transplant, the girlfriend of one of the childhood friends, was the most memorable of the book’s characters for me. I found her search for meaning and happiness to be the emotional centre of these tales. I know that’s vague and not so helpful, but I don’t want anybody to throw spoiler stones at me.

The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer
Neal Stephenson (Spectra; reprint edition)

I have no idea how to sum up the wild imagination and pitch-perfect world building Stephenson engages in. So I’ll just copy this summary from the publisher:

Set in twenty-first century Shanghai, it is the story of what happens when a state-of-the-art interactive device falls in the hands of a street urchin named Nell. Her life—and the entire future of humanity—is about to be decoded and reprogrammed…

Doesn’t help? Ok. Here’s what Stephenson wrote about the book on his website:

The idea came to me when I saw a a mobile designed to hang above a crib, with cards that could be swapped out for more complex designs as the baby’s visual system developed. I thought, why not create an educational book that would tell the same stories with increasing complexity as the child grew up? The genesis of this book was as simple as that. A little girl finds a magic book that changes her life. 

Those summaries aren’t wrong, but the focus on Nell (the street urchin) fail to convey to enormous cast of characters and subplots running through the novel. Stephenson’s imagination and approachable style are well known: I was captivated for the first 400 pages and thought this novel would become one of my favourites. Stephenson is also known however for endings that don’t quite seem to sum up what came before. I absolutely adored The Diamond Age but felt that far too much was left unresolved in a punchmyfistsonthetable sort of way. Would be happy to discuss over pints any time.

The Mezzanine
Nicholson Baker (Grove Press)

Howie, the protagonist of Baker’s debut novel, has a problem. His shoelace has snapped. The Mezzanine chronicles Howie’s lunch hour as he sets out to replace the shoelace with a new one (which he does) and return to work (which he does). The end.

Yet as we follow Howie’s steps and thoughts, Baker’s obsessive delight in the minutiae of life is utterly transfixing. Why did engineers create plastic straws that bob and float unhelpfully in soda cans? Why would one shoelace break weeks or months before their twin if they are subjected to more or less the same stress? What is the proper etiquette to deal with co-workers met infrequently or, shudder, in the workplace bathroom? It’s easy to say this is a novel about Senfieldian nothing, or to poo-poo how frequently the observations are annotated by footnotes. Yet there is a ferocious humanity to Baker’s writing. The book may have been published in the pre-smartphone era of 1988, but the passionate study of necktie knots and home milk delivery still resonate and show us something about how we see the world.

I ended Q1 on a good run; the books by Baker and Stephenson were likely my favourites of the batch.

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