Reading Round-Up: April 2022

Big list last month. Let’s jump right to it:

  • Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page (Stuart McLean)
  • Tangerine: Poems at 94 (Tangerine Bell)
  • Rattle #75
  • Three Men in a Boat (Jerome K. Jerome)
  • A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking (T. Kingfisher)
  • Nurk (Ursula Vernon)
  • Madness, Rack, and Honey (Mary Ruefle)
  • When It Happens to You (Molly Ringwald)
  • Shadow Divers (Robert Kurson)
  • Rattle #70
  • Little Town in the Ozarks (Roger Lea McBride)

April is (inter)national poetry month, so I deliberately went heavier on that than I usually do, reading one full-length collection of poems (Tangerine), two issues of Rattle (my all-time favourite poetry journal), and one collection of essays about poetry (Madness, Rack, and Honey). Surprisingly, I hadn’t actually read any poetry yet this year — too busy mainlining Brandon Sanderson novels — so it was really refreshing to dive back in. I especially enjoyed Mary Ruefle’s essays, which were beautiful and strange. It would also be greatly remiss of me not to mention that Tangerine Bell is my grandmother! She published Tangerine: Poems at 94, her first major collection of poems a few years ago. Tangerine is still alive, but she lives very far away and communication is getting more and more difficult as she ages, so it’s really meaningful to me to have this collection of her thoughts, words, and voice. (PS. buy her book)

T. Kingfisher is the pen-name of Ursula Vernon, who writes sweet children’s fantasy under her own name, and weird grown-up fantasy under the Kingfisher moniker. Nurk is subtitled “The Strange, Surprising Adventures of a (Somewhat) Brave Shrew” and is pretty much what it says on the tin. It was a quick read, and I think my kids would really enjoy it. A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking starts with one of my favourite openers, namely a dead body somewhere it’s not supposed to be — in this case, on the floor of the bakery owned by Mona’s aunt. Mona is a magicker, though only in a small way as her magic only works on dough. But with someone hunting down the city’s magickers, and the Duchess’s army and chief wizard away, Mona soon finds herself called to greater deeds than she ever believed possible. This one felt like a standalone but I hope that Kingfisher/Vernon takes us back to Mona’s world again sometime.

I read Shadow Divers for the first time about six or seven years ago, I think, so this one was a re-read for me. It follows the story of Captain Bill Nagle and his crew of deep-sea wreck divers, who discovered a mystery U-Boat wreck off the New Jersey coast in 1991, far from where any known U-Boats were supposed to be. Kurson chronicles the discovery, the divers, and their deadly six-year journey to finally identify the “U-Who” and the men who served upon it. Even though I remembered the rough outlines, it was still absolutely gripping. See also: the men of U-869; “Everest at the Bottom of the Sea” (this is about diving the Andrea Doria but the ethos is the same).

I enjoyed Molly Ringwald’s (yes, that Molly Ringwald’s) novel-in-stories When It Happens to You. I would say that the plot was that of a fairly typical unraveling-family story, but the structure — telling it as a series of interconnected short stories — worked very well and added a lot of the experience.

Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page was a standard Vinyl Cafe offering: amusing and tender as always. And Three Men in a Boat remains a perpetual re-read, and one of the funniest books I know. (See also: this post from… 2009, wow.)

Reading Roundup: March 2022

March books! As you can see, I’m still on my Brandon Sanderson kick, albeit not so overwhelmingly this month. Here’s the full list:

  • The Flight (Dan Hampton)
  • Warbreaker (Brandon Sanderson)
  • And It Was Good (Madeleine L’Engle)
  • Jayber Crow (Wendell Berry)
  • Twelve Angry Men (Richard Rose)
  • Elantris (Brandon Sanderson)

The Flight was a library discard book I picked up at my local branch, and it chronicles Charles Lindbergh’s world-changing solo flight across the Atlantic. Although there is some necessary biography mixed in, the book’s focus really is an hourly play-by-play of his 33.5-hour flight. Dan Hampton is also an aviator, which made his narrative rich in technical details, although I found his prose somewhat clunky. It was a slow read, but I now know a bunch of facts about aviation in the 1920s, which is not the worst thing in the world.

Warbreaker is an early standalone novel in Brandon Sanderson’s cosmere, set on a planet that uses a magic system based around Breath (with a capital B) and colour. A tense peace exists between neighbouring nations Idris and Hallandren, and Idrian Princess Vivenna has been training her whole life for a treaty-negotiated marriage to Suseron, the Hallandren God-King. At the last moment, however, her sister Siri is sent in her place. Vivenna is determined to rescue her hapless sister, but soon enough both women find out that nothing they’ve assumed about Hallandren is as it seems. (Fun fact: Warbreaker was written two years before Apple’s virtual assistant was released, so the name “Siri” is purely coincidental — but if you read the book with Google’s ebook reader, it changes her name throughout to “Google Assistant,” with predictably hilarious results.)

And It Was Good is one of L’Engle’s nonfiction offerings, this one a long meditation on the first chapters of Genesis, from creation to Abraham. It’s a bit of a meandering text, sprinkled throughout with both memoir and short fiction as she works to relate these Biblical stories to her own life, and to imagine some of the stories that scripture doesn’t give us (what did Eve feel when she birthed Cain?). L’Engle is ultimately building a universalist case for salvation, which I don’t think is true and correct, but I appreciate her willingness to engage with the texts and to challenge some of my own assumptions.

And It Was Good actually sent me to Jayber Crow. I’ve read some of Berry’s poetry, but this was the first time I’d read any of his fiction. The novel is written in the form of a memoir by the eponymous Jayber Crow, the barber in Berry’s fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. It’s much more than Jayber’s life story, really, making up a long elegy for a way of small town American life that began to pass away in the 1950s-70s with the advent of large-scale commercial farming and the construction of the highways and superhighways that suddenly connected small enclaves like Port William to the outside world, for both good and ill. The prose is beautiful (no surprise) and, as with this passage that L’Engle quoted, often indicting:

One Saturday evening, while Troy was waiting his turn in the chair, the subject was started and Troy said — it was about the third thing said — “They ought to round up every one of them sons of bitches and put them right in front of the damned communists, and then whoever killed who, it would be all to the good.”

There was a little pause after that. Nobody wanted to try to top it. I thought of Athey’s reply to Hiram Hench.

It was hard to do, but I quit cutting hair and looked at Troy. I said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you.”

Troy jerked his head up and widened his eyes at me. “Where did you get that crap?”

I said, “Jesus Christ.”

And Troy said, “Oh.”

It would have been a great moment in the history of Christianity, except that I did not love Troy.

I’ve heard many times that the 1957 film 12 Angry Men was an incredible movie about a jury trial, but I wanted to read the stage play before I watched it. So I did. It’s a quick read, and a great play. The movie is also available for free on vimeo — at least until whoever owns MGM these days notices and takes it down.

Elantris was my other BrandoSando book in March, also concerning a treaty wedding — except when Princess Sarene arrives in Arelon to marry Prince Raoden, she finds out that he has died. Except Raoden hasn’t died — he’s been hidden, cast into the lost city of Elantris, after being taken by the shaod… which is sort of like being turned into a zombie? Except living. Mostly. While Raoden works to survive in Elantris and figure out what has happened to the shaod — which, until ten years ago, deified instead of zombified — Sarene must figure out how to prevent a holy war against her adopted nation, led by the grim Derethi priest Hrathen. This was Sanderson’s first published novel, and it shows. It’s not a bad book, I enjoyed it, but it’s full of bewildering fantasy names, many of which sound nearly the same as each other, and doesn’t have the tight plotting or polished prose of later books. Still worth a read, but if you’re starting Sanderson, I wouldn’t start with this one.

Reading Round-Up: February 2022

You may notice a theme here. Last month I read the following books, most of them door stopper-sized and every one of them by Brandon Sanderson:

  • The Way of Kings
  • Words of Radiance
  • Edgedancer
  • Oathbringer
  • Dawnshard
  • Rhythm of War

Only six books… but those books together held over 1.7 million words, so by that measure it was still a pretty heavy reading month!

These are the books that currently make up Sanderson’s “Stormlight Archive” series, which is part of his overarching fictional universe, the Cosmere, which is a little hard to explain without ending up looking like this guy:

In my (admittedly still limited) understanding, the Cosmere is a universe in which a group of ~15 persons conspired to and managed to kill their god/the universe’s creative force, Adonalsium, who/which shattered into a bunch of pieces that flew off into different planetary systems. Those sixteen “shards” of godhood/creative force, each carry one aspect of Adonalsium’s divinity (or whatever) and ended up picked up various individuals in each system, who took on each specific aspect/power and functionally became gods of their planetary systems. Each planetary system has its own distinct magic system, and one of the Cosmere’s overarching themes is what happens when fallen humans end up with divine powers. The books in the Cosmere span thousands of years in time, and although each one is set on a particular world, there are characters who appear in different books/worlds, known as “world-hoppers”. With 18 Cosmere books currently in print and something like a total of 40 planned, there is a lot to explore.

Anyway. The six books I read last month take place on the planet Roshar, part of the Rosharan system. Edgedancer and Dawnshard are novellas that fill out the stories of some minor characters. The Way of Kings, Words of Radiance, Oathbringer, and Rhythm of War are all novels, part of Sanderson’s planned series of 10, and provide the meat of the story. Point of view rotates between a large cast of characters that gradually expands as the series progresses, detailing the war between the Alethi princedoms and the not-quite-human Parshendi peoples on the enormous battlefield known as the Shattered Plains. In The Way of Kings we begin with the stories of Dalinar Kholin, brother of the Alethi king whose assassination opens the book; Kaladin, a darkeyed slave sent to fight on the plains; Prince Adolin, Dalinar’s son; and Shallan Davar, a young woman sent to steal an important piece of technology from one of the preeminent scholars of the day, in hopes of saving her family’s fortune. From there, things get… considerably more complicated.

One of the things that I absolutely love about Brandon Sanderson’s work is his worldbuilding. Roshar is unlike Earth; it’s also unlike other planets in the Cosmere. It’s a watery world, and its people live on one huge continent (there are many more kingdoms/peoples than the Alethi and Parshendi). Roshar is subject to terrible recurring storms, highstorms, that sweep across the continent from East to West before circling the globe and passing over again. You don’t want to be caught out in a highstorm — but you do want to set out your gems, set in glass spheres, so that they can be refreshed with stormlight. Stormlight is the basis of Roshar’s magic system; captured in gemstones, it functions as currency, provides illumination, and is used to power the “fabrials” of Rosharan technology as well as provide the energy needed by Soulcasters, who can transform materials (people into stone, stone into grain, that sort of thing). Also the animals are mostly crabs which is… surprisingly charming. And unlike in this paragraph, Sanderson doesn’t info-dump his worldbuilding; he just plops you right in the action and you piece it together as you go. I love that.

Sanderson also does some interesting things with Rosharan societies. In the Vorin religion, followed by a large swath of the continent, gender roles are highly stratified: for example, only women are literate. This means that a man who wishes to read a book needs a female scribe to read it to him, which in turn means things like noble Alethis going to war as married couples — the husband to fight and lead troops, and his wife to manage the scouts and any reports that need to be read or sent. In Vorinism, a woman’s most private and erotic body part is her left hand, so Vorin women keep it covered at all times — the poor with a simple glove, and the right with a full encapsulating sleeve. And speaking of rich and poor, Alethi society is a caste system. This one isn’t based on skin colour (they uniformly have tan skin and black hair) but on the lightness or darkness of one’s eyes. The dark-eyed masses make up the lower classes, and the light-eyed rule. Members of the ruling caste are therefore addressed as Brightlord or Brightlady.

This was my second time reading through these books; I first encountered the Stormlight Archive about a year ago, as briefly touched on in last year’s round-up post. It had been long enough that I remembered most of the outlines but had forgotten most of the details, which to my mind is just about the perfect condition for a reread. This month I’ve branched out into further reaches of the Cosmere, which you will hear about (though probably not at this length!) later 🙂 I’m so happy to have discovered Brandon Sanderson’s fiction, and I’m sure that I will be reading him for years to come.

Reading notes: 2020/1

Happy New Year! I’m quite flabbergasted that it’s 2022 already; the pandemic has played real havoc with my sense of time. 2020 seemed to last about a decade. 2021, on the other hand, was over in about six minutes. I did find time to read in the last year and change, although the changes to my recording method meant that far, far fewer books got written up here on ye old blog (well, the changes, and the mush-brain that seems like it’s affected me in more of covidtide than not). I am definitely not going to attempt to chronicle them all now (!) — but here are some highlights of my last 1.5 years in books.

July – Sept 2020 (27 books total)

Aug 9 — Fog by Katherine Scanlan. This odd and beautiful little book did get its own post. I read a library copy, but just got one of my own for Christmas & I have no doubt I will return to it many more times.

Open by Andre Agassi. As my husband will readily attest, while I don’t particularly care for sports as such, I love good sports writing. Combine that with my love for memoirs, and it’s no wonder I found Open completely engrossing. It also offered a sober warning regarding some parenting pitfalls, chief among them what happens when you force your children to pursue your dreams instead of their own.

Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. This was my first Riordan book, and it was quickly followed by the rest of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, and then the Heroes of Olympus series, and then the Trials of Apollo series, and what I’m saying is, boy can Rick Riordan write a novel. Don’t let the “middle grade” label turn you off. They’re fantastic.

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. This one also made it to a standalone post. I still think about it sometimes.

Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat. This is a Canadian non-fiction classic. And now I know a lot about wolves! Wolves are cool.

Oct – Dec 24 2020 (29 books total)

Dead Cold by Louise Penny is here standing in for the Three Pines series entire, or nearly: I read her first book, Still Life, in the last block, and then between October and mid-December last year I read Dead Cold, The Cruellest Month, A Rule Against Murder, The Brutal Telling, Bury Your Dead, A Trick of the Light, The Beautiful Mystery, How the Light Gets In, The Long Way Home, The Nature of the Beast, A Great Reckoning, Glass Houses, Kingdom of the Blind, and A Better Man. Phew! At this remove they blend into each other a fair bit, but I remember A Great Reckoning, The Long Way Home, and The Beautiful Mystery as being especially fine. (They’re best read in order, though.)

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. This was a reread for me, but it held up to a second go-round. Alternate earth timeline. Government agencies. Time-travel. Witches. It’s a great romp (also bit of a doorstopper).

But What I Really Want to Do is Direct by Ken Kwapis. I like movie behind-the-scenes extras even more than I like movies. I’ve watched all the extra features for The Lord of the Rings. I’ve hugely enjoyed the episodes I’ve seen of the Netflix series The Movies that Made Us. I listen to Office Ladies and The Office Deep Dive. But What I Really Want to Do is Direct scratches that exact same itch, and I enjoyed getting a glimpse at behind-the-scenes from the directorial point of view.

Christmas 2020 – March 4 2021 (30 books total)

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. So help me, I cannot resist a novel with footnotes. I cannot. This was another reread and I loved it all the more for already having my footing in terms of the setting/world-building. It’s an astonishing book.

Wine Girl by Victoria James. The thing I love about memoirs is that you learn the most interesting things about little parts of life for which you might never otherwise spare a thought. Wine Girl chronicles James’s journey as America’s youngest-ever sommelier. While I enjoy drinking wine I know exactly nothing about it, and this book was a fascinating peek at the weird world of professional wine people.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway broke my heart. (The actual cellist of Sarajevo was not so happy with it, however.)

Dearly by Margaret Atwood. Overall, I found this collection to be a little uneven, but it was worth reading just for the titular poem alone, and its last line still reverberates in my heart.

March 4 – July 3 2021 (30 books total)

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve been listening, on and off, to the Writing Excuses podcast for a few years now, so I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with BrandoSando, but this was my first encounter with his writing. The Way of Kings is the first book in the Stormlight Archive series, which is set in a sprawling and absolutely fascinating world. I read the four full novels that are out, as well as two novellas set in between some of them… unfortunately the last book in the series isn’t slated to come out until Christmas 2023. I suppose that just means I’ll have time to reread the others in time for its release!

A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik. Okay, so it’s a school-of-magic book, like Hogwarts. Except there aren’t teachers, and the school is infested with maleficaria that regularly kill off 3/4 of the graduating class, and the school is semi-sentient and also, maybe not malevolent exactly, but not exactly pro-student either. So, you know, actually not much like Hogwarts at all. (I will read anything that Naomi Novik writes and you should too.)

Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford. It’s 1944 and a busy London street is hit with a bomb, killing five children. Only what if they didn’t die? What would their futures have held? Spufford rewinds the clock, diverts the bomb, and follows his five characters through the decades of the rapidly-changing 21st century. It’s a breathtaking, beautiful endeavour. I read an electronic copy and took… many screenshots.

A Girl from Yamhill and My Own Two Feet by Beverly Cleary. These two memoirs are really two halves of one whole, so I’ll list them together. We are big Cleary fans in this house, and I am perpetually rereading her books to Anselm and Perpetua (Socks is the current favourite). Her memoirs are absolutely charming.

July 4 – Oct 22 2021 (30 books total)

Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. Mozart kept a pet starling, and so did/does Haupt. This is a thoroughly charming little book about starlings, about music, and about finding kindred spirits in surprising places.

In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren. I read a lot of purely escapist books in this period, including several by Christina Lauren (the nom-de-plume of writing partners Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings). In a Holidaze involved a Groundhog Day-style time loop and was easily my favourite of the lot.

Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichl. This is food writer and critic Ruth Reichl’s account of her years as the NYT’s food critic in the 1990s, and of the lengths to which she had to go in order to visit restaurants anonymously. Reichl is an inviting writer and I read two of her other books in this period as well.

To Have and to Hoax by Martha Waters. See above re: escapism. This was a fun regency-era novel following a husband and wife who end up staging an escalating series of fake accidents and illnesses in a bid to win back the other’s affection. It’s silly and satisfying.

Uncommon Type by Tom Hanks. If I’m in the mood for a move and don’t know what else to pick, I’ll generally default to a 90s rom-com, so I feel like I’ve seen a lot of Tom Hanks lately. As it turns out, he can write as well as act, and this collection of short stories thoroughly charmed me.

Oct 23 – Dec 31 2021 (25 books total)

A Carnival of Snackery by David Sedaris. I have to be in the mood for David Sedaris, but when I am, I really am. This is a collection of his diary excerpts from 2003-2020, and it was so interesting reading someone else’s thoughts on things I’ve actually lived through. Plus, you know, he’s awfully funny.

The Inheritance Games by Jennifer Lynn Barnes. Let’s just say I’m not surprised this was a runaway bestseller.

Termination Shock by Neal Stephenson. I went into this one knowing nothing about it except that I always enjoy Stephenson’s books. Turns out it’s about climate change. And Sikh martial arts. And constitutional monarchies. And performative warfare. And feral pigs. It was great.

The Deep Places by Ross Douthat. Douthat is probably best known as a conservative, Catholic commentator for the NYT. He also suffers from Lyme disease, and The Deep Places is a history of the disease in the wider sense as well as in his own life. It is a touching account of the “terrible gift” of chronic illness, and surely a bit of a memento mori for those of us who haven’t been so touched.

And that’s… well, that’s not the lot! But it’s certainly enough for now, and as it’s high time to end this post, I will simply wish you all some wonderful reading in 2022.

Reading Round-Up: June 2019

June was a good month for Canadiana this year, with a full 60% Canadian authorship-rate on my list. Not that I planned it that way — these things tend to happen on their own as I get onto reading jags — but it seems appropriate given that I’m writing this round-up post on Canada Day. (Happy Canada Day.) Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Further Chronicles of Avonlea (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  2. Against the Odds (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  3. A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
  4. Frost & Fire (Roger Zelazny)
  5. I Work at a Public Library (Gina Sheridan)
  6. Boy (Roald Dahl)
  7. The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (Anissa Gray)
  8. The Story Girl (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  9. The Blythes are Quoted (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  10. Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page (Stuart McLean)
  11. Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange (ed. Stuart McLean)
  12. Spirit of Place: Lucy Maud Montgomery and Prince Edward Island (Francis W. P. Bolga, Wayne Barrett, and Anne MacKay)
  13. The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks (Stuart Mclean)
  14. The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Brian Selznick)
  15. The Value of Simple: A Practical Guide to Taking the Complexity Out of Investing (John Robertson)

Lucy Maud Montgomery

… gets her own section this month, with four books by her and one about her. The latter was not, unfortunately, especially interesting. Spirit of Place is a photo book of PEI scenes interspersed with random quotations from LMM’s diaries or letters. I liked most of the pictures — Prince Edward Island certainly lives up to its picturesque reputation — but the quotations seemed chosen at random, the photos didn’t have any discernible order to them, and the whole project seemed rather haphazard. It’s too bad.

The Story Girl is the only novel among the pack, centering around a group of cousins and friends who live in a rural PEI enclave and have adventures etc. The “Story Girl” is really named Sara Stanley, and she has a reputation as a gifted storyteller with an unearthly and charming voice, powerful beyond what her youth would suggest. There is a lot of overblown description of the Story Girl, passages like these:

The Story Girl was barefooted and barearmed, having rolled the sleeves of her pink gingham up to her shoulders. Around her waist was twisted a girdle of the blood-red roses that bloomed in Aunt Olivia’s garden; on her sleek curls she wore a chaplet of them; and her hands were full of them. She paused under the outmost tree, in a golden-green gloom, and laughed at us over a big branch. Her wild, subtle, nameless charm clothed her as with a garment. We always remembered the picture she made there; and in later days when we read Tennyson’s poems at a college desk, we knew exactly how an oread, peering through the green leaves on some haunted knoll of many fountained Ida, must look. (Chapter 18)

The Story Girl leaned that brown head of hers against the fir trunk behind her, and looked up at the apple-green sky through the dark boughs above us. She wore, I remember, a dress of warm crimson, and she had wound around her head a string of waxberries, that looked like a fillet of pearls. Her cheeks were still flushed with the excitement of the evening. In the dim light she was beautiful, with a wild, mystic loveliness, a compelling charm that would not be denied. (Chapter 27)

But when the Story Girl wreathed her nut brown tresses with crimson leaves it seemed, as Peter said, that they grew on her–as if the gold and flame of her spirit had broken out in a coronal, as much a part of her as the pale halo seems a part of the Madonna it encircles. (Chapter 28)

Those were just chosen by paging through at random. There is a lot more of that kind of thing, all terribly saccharine. The Story Girl has a sequel, The Golden Road, but I’m not sure that I’ll bother reading it. I’ve had rather enough of Sara Stanley for a while.

When I checked Further Chronicles of Avonlea out, the librarian laughed at the melodramatic pose on its cover, quipping that it doesn’t really seem very Montgomery-ish. And probably that’s true if you’ve only read Anne of Green Gables, because LMM’s writing on the whole is much darker and more dramatic than her current reputation admits. Anne, after all, was not considered a children’s book when it was first published, and LMM chafed through her life against her growing reputation as someone who wrote for children, not adults. (For further reading see Lucy Maud Montgomery: The Gift of Wings by Mary Henley Rubio.)

Further Chronicles of Avonlea, Against the Odds, an1d The Blythes are Quoted are short story collections, none of which shy away from the dramatic: their narratives deal with poverty, revenge, adultery, illegitimacy, and murder, along with gentler aspects. The Blythes are Quoted is especially interesting in this regard. It is a departure in form from many of her other works, consisting of short stories interspersed by a framing device of poetry by Anne and Walter Blythe, as well as the Blythe family’s spoken and unspoken ruminations on their contents. It is also the last book that Montgomery wrote, delivered to her publisher by an unknown person on the very day she died of suicide via barbiturate overdose. Is The Blythes are Quoted, if not exactly a suicide note, at least a kind of final statement? In some ways it reads as one, as her characters wrestle with the lead-up and aftermath of World War One, particularly (in the latter half of the book) as the dawn of the Second World War called into question all the sacrifices of the First. This was a preoccupation of LMM herself, as well as of her husband, the Rev. Ewen Macdonald, who became convinced late in life that he was predestined to hell for encouraging young men to sign up to fight in WWI. (Seriously: read the Rubio biography.) It’s a dark read, in many ways — but it’s dark in the ways that Montgomery has been all along, if we’ve had the eyes to see it.

Everyone else:

End of essay. Here are the other books I tackled in June, in no particular order:

Zelazny’s Frost & Fire is a collection of sci-fi short stories that I enjoyed very much. I have read other Zelazny before — most notably his sprawling ten-volume Chronicles of Amber series — but not, I think, any short stories. These were clever and strange and very entertaining. Man, I should totally reread the Amber books.

If I Work in a Public Library sounds like the title of a blog, that’s because it is. This is a short, amusing blog-to-book publication that takes about six minutes to read.

We were at the library last week at The Invention of Huge Cabret grabbed my attention — I remember my roommate telling me about how obsessed all of her young piano students were with the movie version when it came out in 2011. It’s a very thick book, but most of it is pictures. I think I would have liked the movie better.

A Streetcar Named Desire is one of those cultural touchstones that you probably know some lines from (STELLLLLLLLLLAAAAAAAA) without necessarily knowing that this is where they’re from. Well, now I’ve read it, and now I know. I’m pretty sure I own at least one or two other plays by Tennessee Williams — definitely A Doll’s House, anyway — and perhaps I will read them soon.

The Value of Simple is a guide for Canadian investors, looking at how to set up index-fund investing (and why you would want to, of course). There is a big friendly “don’t panic” at the beginning, à la Douglas Adams, and the entire thing was easy to read and to understand. And look, now we know some stocks. Wheeeeeeee. (NB: Robertson maintains an errata page where he posts updated information as some options have changed since the book’s publication.)

Over the past few years I have enjoyed diving into memoir as a genre, and Roald Dahl’s account of his boyhood did not disappoint. In many respects his childhood was not an easy one; it was interesting, however, to see the genesis of many of the repeated themes that come out in his novels.

And last, but certainly not least, we come to the late, great Stuart McLean. Last month I read a Vinyl Cafe story collection, which gave me a hankering for more. Each of these is a little different: Vinyl Cafe Turns the Page is a collection of Dave and Morley stories, Time Now for the Vinyl Cafe Story Exchange is an anthology of short (true) stories sent in to the Vinyl Cafe radio show by listeners, and The Vinyl Cafe Notebooks is a collection of thematically-grouped personal essays. All of these were wonderful, and I was happy to round out my mental McLean catalogue.

Post-publication edit: I forgot about The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls by Anissa Gray, which first caught my eye in the library simply because it has a beautiful cover. It’s a tightly-woven family drama that reminds me somewhat of Anne Tyler’s novels — except instead of everyone being white Marylanders they are black Michiganites. Michigonians. Michiganis. They live in Michigan. Lots of reckoning with the past and future, emotional revelations, and etc. It was very good, in a fraught sort of way.

Reading Round-Up: May 2019

Here’s what I read in May:

  1. I’ve Got Your Number (Sophie Kinsella)
  2. Early Riser (Jasper Fforde)
  3. Surprise the World: The Five Habits of Highly Missional People (Michael Frost)
  4. The End of Education (Neil Postman)
  5. Trust Exercise (Susan Choi)
  6. The Wealthy Barber Returns (Dave Chilton)
  7. Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe (Stuart McLean)
  8. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister (Gregory Maguire)
  9. Kilmeny of the Orchard (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  10. The Year of Magical Thinking (Joan Didion)
  11. After Many Days (Lucy Maud Montgomery)
  12. I Owe You One (Sophie Kinsella)
  13. The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (John M. Gottman and Nan Silver)

The book that has most stuck with me is probably Susan Choi’s Trust Exercise. It is set at a competitive arts high school in the 1980s, following a class of drama students as they form and lose romances, friendships, and alliances under the supervision of their brilliant and demanding drama teacher, Mr. Kingsley. The brilliance of Trust Exercise is in the way it works to reshape our understanding of the truth or falsity of its depicted events. The narrative is divided into three sections. there is a major shift (in perspective, in understanding) about halfway through the novel that asks us to re-evaluate what came before, and yet another in the short third section that in turn reframes the contents of both the first and second sections. I coudn’t stop thinking about it after I finished. I’m still thinking about it.

The other novel that especially stood out to me from May’s reading is Jasper Fforde’s Early Riser. Jasper Fforde writes weird, fascinating novels set in alternate-universe earths. Early Riser is set on an earth — in Wales, to be precise — where humans hibernate through the winter, humanity is facing a global cooling crisis, and under-population is a constant threat. Also there are viral dreams that may or may not be becoming real. And zombies. It’s all completely bonkers and you should read it.

I also made some progress on the resumption of my Lucy Maud Montgomery reading project. Kilmeny of the Orchard had its own post here. After Many Days is a collection of rediscovered short stories, collated and edited by Rea Wilmshurst. There are a few of these collections now, all arranged thematically. The stories in After Many Days all had to do with the resolution of things long put on hold: long-lost lovers finally reuniting, family reconciliations, chances for a long-anticipated revenge, someone returning in the nick of time and un-mortgaging the family farm, and so on and so forth — happy endings all round, of course. I enjoyed them.

Besides After Many Days, I read one other collection of short stories: Christmas at the Vinyl Cafe. The Vinyl Cafe was a long-running CBC radio show, hosted by the late Stuart McLean. It featured music and essays, but the heart of the show was its stories, especially the “Dave and Morley” stories about a middle-aged Toronto couple and their family, friends, and neighbours. I grew up listening to The Vinyl Cafe on Sunday afternoons, and I either own or have read most of the story collections. (It may or may not be possible to listen to some of them on youtube, possibly including my personal favourite, Polly Anderson’s Christmas Party. Shhhh.)

Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister was a fairly enjoyable read, setting the Cinderella story in Haarlem (Netherlands) during the Tulip mania years. The title doesn’t match the tone especially well.

Last, but not least, on the fiction list for May: two novels by Sophie Kinsella. In I’ve Got Your Number, Poppy Wyatt loses her engagement ring — a heirloom! — and her cell phone in a hotel fire-drill mishap; luckily, she finds a cell phone someone left in the trash and can leave its number with the hotel in case her ring turns up. But the cell phone belongs to someone — the ex-assistant of Sam Roxton, high-powered businessman, who wants his company phone back. This one was genuinely funny, and very of-the-moment with a lot of text messages breaking up the narrative. In I Owe You One, “Fixie” Farr saves a stranger’s laptop from water damage at a coffee shop, setting off a chain of I-owe-yous between her and Seb, the laptop’s owner, while she tries to juggle running her family’s shop and the reappearance of Ryan, and old crush, in her life. It was definitely not as strong as I’ve Got Your Number.

I’ve already forgotten what the Five Habits of Highly Missional People are. Um… eating together is one. Honestly, I’m drawing a complete blank. I suppose I could always read it again since it’s a teeny, tiny, seriously short book.

Neil Postman’s The End of Education was a helpful read for me as I think about the kids’ educational choices. If education is a means to an end, Postman asks, then what precisely is that end? And, if we have determined what the end of education is, how does the means of education — here he is chiefly considering the public school system, but the question applies more broadly — serve that end? Or does it serve it at all? And if the means don’t serve the end, what must change?

I tried to read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking some years ago, and couldn’t get past the first few pages; the book begins with the account of her husband’s sudden death, and I don’t know what it was — it was just too sad for me, at least then, and I couldn’t go on. But I went on this time. It’s a sensitively written and beautiful little book, but yes, sad, especially at its end, where it concludes on rather a hopeless note.

My husband and I both read The Wealthy Barber Returns last month, mostly on the recommendation of r/personalfinancecanada. It’s a funny, easy read, and gave us a lot of good discussion points now that we’re finally done with school and paying for school, and thinking about things like investments and retirement and university costs for the children and all that good stuff. It’s a good overview, I think, and we may go back to it in the future.

Finally, the Gottman book. A few years ago I read a profile of John Gottman’s work in The Atlantic that was making the social media rounds: The Secret to Love is Just Kindness. It stuck with me, and The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work is a great introduction to his research — which includes longitudinal studies on thousands of couples over multiple decades — and, I think, very practical and wise. If you’re married this one is probably a must-read.

Phew! I think half the “writing” time for these posts is spent doing things like googling character names I can no longer remember… I need to start making notes as I go.

Reading Round-Up: April 2019

Back in the reading saddle! But not in the blogging saddle, apparently, so here is April’s book list, better late than never. April was our transition month; we began it in one country and ended it in another, with a lot of packing, unpacking, cleaning, arranging, and etc. in between. Here’s what I read:

  1. The Complete Stories (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  2. Charity Girl (Georgette Heyer)
  3. Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven (Fannie Flagg)
  4. The Appeal (John Grisham)
  5. The Whole Town’s Talking (Fannie Flagg)
  6. Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy (Gareth Wronski)
  7. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece (ed. Joan Reardon)
  8. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
  9. The Green and the Gray (Timothy Zahn)

As Always, Julia was featured in its own post.

Dorothy Sayers’s The Complete Stories was what I read over the actual week of our move, and it was probably the perfect choice; the book is seven hundred pages or so, so I wasn’t going to run out of material quickly, but the short length of the stories and the fact that they were not especially interconnected meant that it was easy for me to put it down and pick it up without having to keep track of very many threads. Or any, really. There was enough to keep track of already!

Pride and Prejudice — a perennial favourite of mine — was also a mid-move read, despite its position a little further down the list. I listened over the course of a few weeks to about the first forty chapters via a LibriVox recording, and then finished the rest in paperback form while I was waiting in all those places you need to wait after a move: government service centres, the auto shop for our provincial safety inspection, etc. This was the first audiobook I was able to stand listening to (ever), although it did take a few chapters to get the narrators’ voices out of my head once I did start reading the book myself. I’ll try LibriVox again.

I don’t have much to say about Charity Girl — I really read it back in March, mostly, but it was due back to the library at our old place right before we moved, and I didn’t get a chance to finish it then. So then after we moved I was able to get a copy from the new library, and finished the last couple of chapters… but so much had happened both in reading life and real life since then I had completely lost track of what was going on. I know I enjoyed what I read in March — I do like Georgette Heyer very much — but I will have to read it again sometime to be able to do it justice.

Speaking of the public library, I was tickled pink to find a copy of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy on display there on one of our first visits. I’d been hoping/meaning to to read it for a while; this is the debut novel of a former classmate of mine. Gareth and I had several classes together over the first two years of undergrad and so I was pretty excited, after losing touch for the better part of a decade, to see his name on the cover of a book. (Gareth, are you reading this? Hello!) This is a super-fun middle-grade space romp, narrated by a sarcastic storytelling robot who refers to the readers as sacks of meat… on page one. Also there are pirates. It was marvelous.

Also marvelous: Timothy Zahn’s The Green and the Gray. Zahn is a sci-fi writer I first encountered through the Star Wars extended universe novelizations. He writes a lot more than that, though! In The Green and the Gray, married couple Roger and Caroline are suddenly thrust into the middle of an ethnic war between two alien tribes who had (separately) fled to New York City — neither group knowing the other was there until a chance encounter awoke all the tensions they thought they had left behind. I nearly read this one through in a sitting; it’s that compelling a story-line.

I’m not sure what to say about The Appeal besides that John Grisham is John Grisham and the book ticked all of the expected boxes. Not super memorable, but good brain candy in the moment.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and The Whole Town’s Talking are two loosely related novels — I wouldn’t quite characterize them as a series although they are thematically linked and share a number of characters — both set in the small town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri. Both are concerned with the question of what happens to us after we die. In Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, senior citizen Elner Shimfissle falls out of a tree and is pronounced dead at the hospital — the book deals with the aftermath of her death among the residents of Elmwood Springs, alternating with Elner’s after-death experiences which include meeting her hero (Thomas Edison) and God (who takes the form of a married couple who used to be her neighbours). It’s a strange book, and sweet. The Whole Town’s Talking reaches back to Elmwood’s Springs’s founding, and tells the stories of its prominent inhabitants reaching forward to the present day. Most of the book is set in the town cemetery, where it appears that “resting” place is a bit of a misnomer as the plot concerns the dead as much as the living.

And that was it for April!

Reading Round-Up: March 2019

In February, I was busy and stressed, and so I only read two books. In March, I was busier and more stressed, so my switch flipped to compulsive escape reading. Here’s the list:

  1. To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis)
  2. The Street Lawyer (John Grisham)
  3. The King of Torts (John Grisham)
  4. Gray Mountain (John Grisham)
  5. The Associate (John Grisham)
  6. The Elephant in the Room (Tommy Tomlinson)
  7. The Alphabet of Grace (Frederick Buechner)
  8. The Final Beast (Frederick Buechner)
  9. Rogue Lawyer (John Grisham)
  10. Remember Me? (Sophie Kinsella)
  11. My (Not So) Perfect Life (Sophie Kinsella)
  12. Shopaholic and Sister (Sophie Kinsella)
  13. False Colours (Georgette Heyer)

You know what I love about John Grisham? No matter how much you read, there’s always more John Grisham. His back-catalogue is something like thirty titles. All of these were easy-reading page-turners, which was perfect for last month (and especially for some long car trips). Of the five I read in March I would call Gray Mountain the best of the lot; I note also that The Street Lawyer made me bawl at one point. The King of Torts seems to have disappeared from my memory entirely.

Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog is a long-time favourite that I go back to every couple of years (last read sometime in 2016 I think). In this alternate universe, time travel exists, but its only real value is in academic historical study. In TSNotD, Oxford historian Ned Henry is sent to the Victorian era in a bid to find out what happened to the “Bishop’s bird stump,” needed for a replica of Coventry Cathedral (destroyed in the Blitz, a hundred years in the past from Ned’s native time). It’s a slightly madcap comedy of manners, plus time travel and chaos theory, plus a satisfying romance and homage to a lot of British literature and culture from the Victorian era through WWII. Oh, and it’s very, very funny.

The Elephant in the Room is about weight loss. Kind of. Saying that a book is “about” weight loss makes it sound like a diet book, or some other sort of gimmicky who-knows-what. It’s not; this is Tommy Tomlinson’s beautiful memoir about journalism, marriage, life in the American South, and his own struggles as a morbidly obese man in a rapidly fattening nation. His quest to lose weight is central to the book, but he also uses it as a jumping-off point to explore his past and present. A big strength of the book is his willingness to explore why he got as big as he did: not the too-many-calories bit (which is just math) but the personal reasons behind his overeating. I’m glad to have read this one.

It was interesting to notice some strong and similar themes in the three Sophie Kinsella books I read, most notably that of (attempted) self-reinvention. In MNSPL, farm girl Katie tries to remake herself for the sake of her hip branding job in London; in RM? Lexi is trying to understand the ways she has apparently changed after she wakes up in the hospital with no memory of the past three years; in S&S, Becky tries to change her money habits for the sake of her new husband, Luke. All of these were ultimately unsuccessful; Kinsella’s conclusion seems to be that reinvention is perhaps ultimately impossible, and not worth the damage it does to your authentic self (even when your “authentic self” is an insufferable twit, ahem, looking at you, Becky). Of the three, I think MNSPL was by far the strongest offering; it’s funny and charming.

The central idea of Remember Me? is a compelling one, but certain aspects of its execution left a bad taste in my mouth (spoilers upcoming). In the weeks following her discharge from the hospital, Lexi is horrified to realise that she has been having an adulterous affair with a man named Jon, one of her husband’s employees. She views herself as a fundamentally faithful person and can’t imagine how or why she would have changed so much in three years as to see that as acceptable. As the narrative progresses we find out that her marriage is an uncomfortable one (her husband is kind of weird and doesn’t particularly understand her); Lexi eventually leaves him and resumes her relationship with Jon, upending her pre-amnesiac convictions that cheating on her husband is morally wrong. Perhaps the marriage did need to end — but that was because of the damage done to it by Lexi, not her husband. The novel’s other subplots were engaging enough, but I found the romantic storyline troublesome and deeply unsatisfying.

Speaking of affairs, that’s what the whole town assumes is going on between a widowed young pastor and his pretty redheaded parishioner when they both disappear at the same time in Buechner’s 1965 novel The Final Beast. What’s actually going on is, of course, a lot more complicated than that. I think I liked this book (?) but it’s already mostly slipped out of my memory — that’s the trouble with escape reading, it often escapes you as well. Same thing with The Alphabet of Grace as well (I found that one a little difficult to read; Buechner’s prose is not always the clearest).

Last but not least, I finished off the month with Georgette’s Heyer’s Regency-era romance False Colours, which was a delightful romp centered on a twins-changing-places plot. Great fun.

Reading Round-Up: February 2019

Short month, short list. Here are my books for February:

  1. Golden Hill (Francis Spufford)
  2. Vanity Fair (William Makepeace Thackeray)

Some months are just like that, you know? We’re preparing for a new job (my husband’s) and a big move (all of us), and there are a lot of balls in the air right now. Plus, we traveled; actually, we are just back, and as I type the children are playing hard, happy to be back in our apartment and released from their car seats after about an eleven-hour drive. A lot of nights I was too tired to read, or to read much, and that’s okay.

(One of the difficulties of tracking my reading like I do is that I can get in my head a little bit about the numbers. Sometimes I need to remind myself that it’s fine for my numbers to be down, and that usually that portents something relatively exciting happening in our regular life. I read very little during the months Anselm and Perpetua were newborns, and the months around our move to what was then the new-job-new-home and will shortly be the old-job-old-home. My life was full! That’s okay — better than okay! It’s just something to remind myself of now and again. )

Anyway, I did read some things. Golden Hill was described on its jacket as something like “the best eighteenth-century novel since the eighteenth century” and that feels about right to me. As the book opens, handsome young Mr. Smith steps off a boat and into pre-revolutionary New York City, with a bank draft for a thousand pounds in his pocket and tight lips about his purpose in visiting the colonies with such an enormous sum of money. As he integrates into New York society — well, sort of — Spufford prods at issues of race and class (and love, and lack thereof) in a novel that was seriously engrossing. There are, I would say, three major twists, one in the middle and two at the end; I only guessed one. The others make me keen to re-read Golden Hill in a year or two, to see how my impressions of its action are shaped by those latter revelations.

And what to say about Vanity Fair? I read it for the first time in university, so this was my second go at it — I remembered a very vague outline of the plot, but not so much to spoil my enjoyment. In some respects Vanity Fair was the perfect choice for this month, because it is many hundreds of pages long, and extremely funny, but the chapters are so episodic that just getting through one or two enough was satisfying. There are times in my life when all I need is a nice fat Victorian novel in which to lose myself for a bit, and this was just the ticket.

Reading Round-Up: January 2019

Twenty full days into the next month is probably the latest I’ve ever left a round-up post. Here at Chez Pennylegion we’re mired in moving logistics at the moment, which seem to be taking most of my mental energy; I had been delaying this post because I really wanted to write about one book on its own, Neil Postman’s Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. I’ve started that post three or four times now — I don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. It’s time to set it aside; for the moment, suffice to say that you should consider giving it a read. As to the rest, here’s January’s list:

  1. The Mysterious Benedict Society (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  2. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoners Dilemma (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  3. Tending the Heart of Virtue (Vigen Guroian)
  4. The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion (Fannie Flagg)
  5. An Acceptable Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
  6. A War of Loves (David Bennett)
  7. Little Fires Everywhere (Celeste Ng)
  8. The Lost Tools of Learning (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  9. Over Sea, Under Stone (Susan Cooper)
  10. The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper)
  11. Greenwitch (Susan Cooper)
  12. The Grey King (Susan Cooper)
  13. Silver on the Tree (Susan Cooper)
  14. Annabel Scheme (Robin Sloan)
  15. Technopoly (Neil Postman)
  16. The Little Mermaid and Other Fairy Tales (Hans Christian Andersen)

This was one of those heavy-on-the-fiction months, and included reading/completing two series… serieses… groups of related books. The Mysterious Benedict Society and [Ditto] and the Prisoners Dilemma capped off my re-read of Trenton Lee Stewart’s delightful middle-grade puzzle books (completely out of order, mind you). And I (re)read through Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising Sequence while barely pausing to breathe between each installment. It’s an interesting series, with that very British mix of Christian and Pagan symbols and forces — plus some ethical dilemmas worth pondering. At the end of the last book, a secondary character finds that his wife has been in league with the Dark — that his entire marriage has been built around a lie. She is destroyed; he has the choice put before him to either remember all that has truly happened (including the great grief of her betrayal) or to remember only that she has died (but no details of her misalliance with the Dark or the truth of their union). The choice, in a way, is between grief and grief: but is it better to grieve the truth or the lie?

I picked up Fannie Flagg’s The All-Girl Filling Station’s Last Reunion after enjoying Friend Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe in December. It’s a fun read, moving between present-day Alabama, where middle-aged Sookie Earle finds out something shocking about her past, and WW2-era Wisconsin, where a group of Polish-American sisters run their family’s filling station before enlisting and flying with the WASP. The family-drama side of the narrative is heartfelt, and I learned a lot about an area of the war effort I had never heard much about.

An Acceptable Time is one of those Madeleine L’Engle novels I’ve had kicking around my shelves approximately forever but hadn’t actually read. I liked it; much food for thought as always and a fun time travel element. I think this is one of the middle books of a series, though, and it probably would have been a better read if it had been slotted into its proper place.

Little Fires Everywhere was probably the best of the fiction I read last month; indeed, I still think about it from time to time. Ng’s story is set in a Cleveland suburb in the late 1990s — my uncle’s garage makes an appearance, which was a bit surreal — and the plot circles around motherhood in all of its many complicated forms. I think she hits it all: miscarriage and infant loss, adoption (from bio-and adoptive-parent perspectives), surrogacy, abortion, wanted and unwanted motherhood, good relationships between mothers and children, bad relationships between mothers and children… you name it, Ng invites us to ponder it. The greatest strength of this novel is that she manages to make all of her characters sympathetic; our expectations about their motivations are constantly getting overturned, which makes the book’s moral/ethical explorations all the more poignant. I’ll be reading this one again.

If I hadn’t read Little Fires Everywhere, I probably would have pegged Annabel Scheme as the best in January — it’s a strange, compelling little novella from the wonderfully weird brain of Robin Sloan (author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore and Sourdough). And you can download it for free in several formats here!

Last but not least on the fiction side of things, I read the collected fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen — in an absolutely gorgeous edition put forth by MinaLima, the design firm behind the Harry Potter movie aesthetics. I hadn’t read most of the stories for decades, probably. Since the MinaLima edition is a thing of beauty and a joy forever, it’s gone onto my to-buy list, along with the other books in the series (The Jungle Book, The Beauty and the Beast, The Secret Garden, and Peter Pan).

Phew! On to the non-fiction!

Tending the Heart of Virtue was briefly treated in this post.

Dorothy L. Sayers’s The Lost Tools of Learning is really just a long essay I happen to own in book form. You can read it for free here (go on, it’ll just take a few minutes). This is one of the resources that is helping to shape my thinking as we consider school options for Anselm and Perpetua.

A War of Loves: The Unexpected Story of a Gay Activist Discovering Jesus recounts David Bennett’s surprising conversion to Christ; one of its major strengths is how gracious and even-handed Bennett is towards those on all sides of this particular culture war. Everyone we meet in A War of Loves is a human being — something all to easy to forget.

Finally: Technopoly. I have a blog post in my drafts folder that’s just long excerpts of Technopoly that I just want everybody to read — and I hope they’ll see the light of day. In the mean time, the Cliff’s Notes version: Neil Postman published Technopoly in 1992, looking at the intersection of culture and technology. He uses a historical approach in discussion how technological innovation changes culture (the printing press being the obvious example) and then traces the roots of what he sees as a particularly American obsession with technological progress as a marker of human progress. Postman was writing at what we might think of as the dawn of the computer age; his remarks are eerily prescient and, although social media, “smart” technologies, and the like did not exist at the time of his writing, it’s pretty easy to extrapolate his points. America, Postman argues, is a “techonopoly” (as opposed to a “tool-using culture” or a “technocracy”); that is, a culture which sees technological innovation as its highest cultural good and in which technological innovation is chiefly seen as only ever good. Postman invites us to interrogate those claims. He is no Luddite; Postman doesn’t see technological advances as bad things per se — but argues that every major technological change is a mixed blessing, creating cultural winners and cultural losers.

There is a lot more that I would say about Technopoly if I could drag my grey matter into line to do so right now. But instead, let me close with Postman’s recipe for how to become “a loving resistance fighter” against the forces of cultural technopoly:

… if there is an awareness of and resistance to the dangers of Technopoly, there is reason to hope that the United States may yet survive its Ozymandias-like hubris and technological promiscuity. Which brings me to the “resistance fighter” part of my principle. Those who resist the American Technopoly are people

who pay no attention to a poll unless they know what questions were asked, and why;

who refuse to accept efficiency as the pre-eminent goal of human relations;

who have freed themselves from the belief in the magical powers of numbers, do not regard calculation as an adequate substitute for judgment, or precision as a synonym for truth;

who refuse to allow psychology or any “social science” to pre-empt the language and thought of common sense;

who are, at least, suspicious of the idea of progress, and who do not confuse information with understanding;

who do not regard the aged as irrelevant;

who take seriously the meaning of family loyalty and honor, and who, when they “reach out and touch someone,” expect that person to be in the same room;

who take the great narratives of religion seriously and who do not believe that science is the only system of thought capable of producing truth;

who know the difference between the sacred and the profane, and who do not wink at tradition for modernity’s sake;

who admire technological ingenuity but do not think it represents the highest possible form of human achievement.

A resistance fighter understands that technology must never be accepted as part of the natural order of things, that every technology — from an IQ test to an automobile to a television set to a computer — is a product of a particular economic and political context and carries with it a program, an agenda, and a philosophy that may or may not be life-enhancing and that therefore requires scrutiny, criticism, and control. In short, a technological resistance fighter maintains an epistemological and psychic distance from any technology, so that it always appears somewhat strange, never inevitable, never natural. — Neil Postman, Technopoly, 183-5

Indeed. Tune in this time next month when I tell you about the two whole books it looks like I’m going to get through in February.