What I read in 2018

The fun thing about GoodReads is keeping track of what you read by date. In the spirit of making everything one big competition, I couldn’t help but notice that I have read significantly fewer books in 2018 as I did in 2017. I honestly don’t know what I did with my time; what with moving to Stittsville on a 4-week notice, driving the children back to school in Carleton Place for two months, Paul being in Latvia for part of the Summer, having physical therapy several times a week, looking for work and finding it, it’s hard to believe I wouldn’t have time to “yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of (my) mind by extensive reading.”


In January, I finished reading “Papillon” by Henri Charrière. “Papillon” is the questionable autobiography of Henri Charrière, a French man unjustly sentenced to forced labour in the French prison colony of Guyana in 1931. When I was in secondaire 4 (the Quebec equivalent of grade 10), our geography teacher stopped teaching geography in May of every year and read this book to his students from memory. I’m pretty sure he left out the parts where Papillon’s dingy is shipwrecked on a South American beach and he is welcomed by a tribe of naked aboriginal warriors and given two nymphomaniac teenage sisters to marry… Still, it was riveting.

After finishing “Papillon” I tackled “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. This book left its mark as one of the best-written, gut-wrenching books I have ever read. From its unique story to its creative structure (I must have read the book three times for all the times I re-read chapters from the vantage point of the characters as they were revealed) it is a true work of genius.


In February and March I read Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. Well-done and worth a read. Everyone speaks of Elon Musk’s work ethics but I don’t think “ethics” means what people think it does. In that context, “ethics” are the moral principles governing a person’s behaviour and activities. Reading “Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” I didn’t get the sense that Elon Musk had succeeded because he made decisions based on moral considerations — even if I didn’t share his principles. Elon Musk succeeded in spite of himself by brute force: he has worked relentlessly at launching his companies at the exclusion of everything else. Maybe that’s a moral imperative but the picture of Elon Musk painted by Ashlee Vance betrays a man who is compulsively pursuing the goals he set out for himself, not someone who is making moral choices in the conduct of his activities.


In April, we set the wheels in motions for our move to Stittsville and it looks like I didn’t read much. Imagine that!


In May, I started reading “Two” by Gulzar. Gulzar is a prolific poet and lyric-writer for some of Bollywood’s most beloved soundtracks. “Two” was his first novel and it chronicles the migration of two groups of villagers over the confusing few months preceding the partition of India and Pakistan. Before the lines were drawn, before anyone knew where to go or what was going on. Moved by a sense of impeding doom, Muslims and Hindus who had always lived harmoniously side-by-side set out in separate groups to move where they thought they would be welcomed, away from the sectarian violence rising on each side of the newly created border.


In July and August, I read “L’étranger” by Albert Camus. What can I write about this book that hasn’t been written before? It’s a French classic about a man whose naiveté and honesty — and stupidity? — cause his downfall. He is in equal parts victim of his own choices and wrapped up in events beyond his control, which makes him nearly impossible to sympathize with or completely hate. That’s the genius of Camus’ writing: his ability to show us our own absurdity and hubris through Meurseault’s nihilism. The book opens with one of the most famous French opening lines: « Aujourd’hui, maman est morte. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. » (Today, mother died. Or was it yesterday, I don’t know.) Slowly, Camus brings us to the same detachment and disenfranchisement as his narrator so that by the time he is condemned to death following a botched and superficial trial, we too can take it or leave it. The genius of “L’étranger” is in what it does to the reader when we become Meurseault.

August to October

In August to October, I slugged through “The God of Small Things” and wrote a review about it. You can read it here. Please read it. I almost broke my brain writing it.


In November I started “East of Eden” by John Steinbeck. Then I found a job. Then my e-reader ran out of juice and I couldn’t find my charger (try that excuse with a paperback!). I’m only on chapter 4 but every sentence is distilled perfection. I already have several index cards with “perfectly written phrases” kicking around. I know this book will bowl me over. I’ll write about it in 2019.


In December I started working at City Hall for my municipal councillor, which blew my urbanism geek’s closet door wide open. “Happy City: Transforming our lives through urban design” by Charles Montgomery is putting some of my experience with the isolation, depression and rebirth I felt when we moved to the country and back into the city. I write quotes on index cards when I read and stick them into the book for future reference. I’m only 50 pages into ‘Happy City” and I have already written so many memorable and important quotes on index cards that I had to start using Evernote because the book was getting too unwieldy from all the extra weight. I’ll probably write a full review when I’m done.

There you have it! Books from 2018. What did you read?

What I read in 2017

Last year I started writing down a list of the books I read and who recommended them to me. At the beginning of January, I purchased a Kobo e-book. It was the best purchase I made in years. I still think that there is a charisma to reading ink on paper but I’ll have more principles when I have fewer children living at home.

The Kobo is easy to tuck into my purse and I can read in bed without bothering my bed-mate(s). Unfortunately, it prevents me  from supporting my local independent bookstore (if you never visited Mill Street Books in Almonte, please do: it’s everything you ever dreamed a bookstore to be.) But results speak for themselves: I read more books in 2017 than in the previous 10 years combined. Here is the list of books I read in 2017. Since life is too short to read crappy books, I do not feel an obligation to finish a book I am not enjoying. It follows that I recommend all those books just for finishing them.

1. “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft” by Stephen King. Non-fiction/Memoir. Paperback. Recommended by: Brainpickings. This is on the must-read list for any creative type. Quote: “Being swept away by a combination of great story and great writing — of being flattened in fact — is part of every writer’s necessary formation. You cannot hope to sweep someone else away by the force of your writing until it has been done to you.”

2. “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern. Fantastic/YA/Fiction. Book. Recommended by: The Protagonist Podcast, episode 073 (it’s one of their most downloaded episodes). I remember reading after finishing the book that it had been started as a NaNoWriMo project and not being surprised: it has a “pieced-together” quality that was disconcerting at times. Reading the book, I was delighted by Erin Morgenstern’s gift of imagination. She describes the magical and the transcendent with a rare skill but I found that the story lacked focus and rhythm and that the structure was unnecessarily confusing.

3. “A Boy in the Moon: A Father’s Journey to Understand His Extraordinary Son” by Ian Brown. Memoir/Non-fiction. Book. Recommended by: I found it in a used bookstore and thought it would be good background reading for my own novel.

4. “The Evening Chorus” by Helen Humphreys. Historical Fiction. Book. Recommended by: I found this book in my car, that’s all I can say. It’s beautifully written, from a “craft of writing” perspective. Every sentence is a work of art. That said, it also lacked focus and read like a collection of story starts and hints of characters. As Stephen King wrote in “On Writing” (paraphrasing someone else, I think): “If you put a gun on the mantel in chapter 2, you better make sure someone picks it up in chapter 4.”

5. “The Headmaster’s Wager” by Vincent Lam. Historical fiction. Kobo e-pub. Recommended by: my friend Johanne Wagner of Twins for Hope. Vincent Lam is one of my favourite writers and his debut “Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures” is my aspirational book: I re-read it as a model of how I would want to write someday. In “The Headmaster’s Wager”, the man falls into a hole and digs himself in deeper and deeper until all those he loves are dead, most of them because of his bad calls. He is left with nothing but his sense of self-preservation, we are left with the start of “Bloodletting and miraculous cures.”

6. “Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage murders and the birth of the FBI” by David Grann. Investigative journalism/non-fiction. Kobo e-pub. Recommended by: The Longform podcast, episode 241. Non-fiction reading like a true murder-mystery about a dark episode of American history. From the synopsis: “In the 1920s, the richest people per capita in the world were members of the Osage Indian Nation in Oklahoma. After oil was discovered beneath their land, the Osage rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe. Then, one by one, they began to be killed off.” This book is masterfully written and researched.

7. “There are no children here: the story of two boys growing up in the other America” by Alex Kotlowitz. Investigative journalism/non-fiction. Kobo e-pub. Recommended by: The Longform podcast, episode 240. This book should be on the reading list for humanity, especially if you think that there is no such thing as privilege. This is a book that blew my mind, I have no more eloquent way to describe it. It took me right to Andrew-Horner Homes. It’s one thing to know that inequality exists at our doorsteps, it’s another to experience it at the hands of a gifted writer.

8. “American Kingpin: The epic hunt for the criminal mastermind behind the Silk Road” by Nick Bilton. Investigative journalism/non-fiction. Kobo e-pub. Recommended by: The Longform podcast, episode 244.  Everything I knew about the Silk Road I learned from The Good Wife. I started the book, I finished the book. I may have taken a pee break at some point. Page-turners are few and far-between in non-fiction, this is one of them.

9. “Papillon” by Henri Charrière. Questionable auto-biography/non-fiction fiction. Kobo e-pub. Recommended by: My grade 9 teacher used to read this book out loud (from memory) to his classes in May-June on the belief that there was no point trying to teach anything after the weather turned nice. This is the auto-biography of Henri Charriere, a French man accused of a murder he did not commit and sentenced life imprisonment in the penal colony of French Guiana. This is the story of his obsession with escape and revenge. Large parts of the book are unbelievable, some smack of delirium (like that South America Native village?), but you read-on because you want to believe. A hell of a caper.

10. “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fiction, classic. Kobo e-pub. Recommended by: Life. There are some books that you have to read. This is one of them.

11. “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck. Fiction, classic. Kobo e-pub. Recommended by: Bruce Springsteen.

12. “The Blind Side: The Evolution of Game” by Michael Lewis. Investigative journalism, non-fiction. Kobo e-pub. Recommended by: The Longform podcast, episode 91. This is a book that will make you care about football the same way Friday Night Lights did: come for the stories, stay for the football.

13. “A visit from the Goon Squad” by Jennifer Egan. Fiction. Kobo e-pub. Recommended by: I first heard Jennifer Egan on Q and was smitten by her description of her creative process: it spoke to all my nook and crannies as a writer. Two days later, I heard Jason Isbell — my current overwhelming creative crush — mention “Visit from the Goon Squad” during an interview with George Saunders. So I knew I had to read it. This way, when I meet Jason Isbell, I can talk about something intelligent instead of melting in a puddle of goo. Nah… who am I kidding?

14. “Writing Better Lyrics” by Pat Pattison. Paperback. I don’t remember how I came across this book but one of my favorite songwriters of all times, Gillian Welsh, wrote its foreword. I’ve been reading this book for 18 months but I read a little, then try to apply it to my songwriting. Then read a little more.

15. “Story Grid: What Good Editors Know” by Shawn Coyne. Kobo e-pub. This is the book that sent me to New York City for a writing workshop. It’s informing a lot of my writing, whether I follow it or not.

That’s it for 2017! I am currently reading “All the Light we cannot see” on my Kobo and Sherlock Holmes in paperback. I have a mile long wish list at the Kobo store. What are reading these days?