My eclectic reading list

I can’t post any more Internet pictures of books because I heard about somebody being sued for that. And the following were library books and they’ve already gone back to the library so I can’t take a picture myself. Sorry!

How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran: I was expecting a lighter take on feminism when I picked this book up (actually had it on hold for ages, it’s popular) but I was surprised and pleased to discover that Moran is quite serious about her topic. She has a self-deprecating, aggressively funny way of making her point so the book is fun to read, but she made me think hard about my own definition of feminism. Her definition? “If you have a vagina and you want to be in charge of it, you’re a feminist.’ In a nutshell! What I remember most about this book was the difference between “being” and “doing” – she points at the WAGs (wives and girlfriends of professional athletes) and people like Katie Price (this woman is famous for having a topless photo of herself in a British tabloid – it’s a British thing – but that is it, and she’s parlayed this into a major empire of self-promotion) who are “being” various things: famous, photographed, having reality shows made about them. I think a good North American parallel is Kim Kardashian. I’ve been irritated before with people who are famous for…nothing! They’re good looking, but seriously? Why pay any attention to them? Then Moran points to Lady Gaga to illustrate the difference. Unlike Katie Price, who has nothing to say for herself, Lady Gaga has lots to say, and she’s come up with original and intriguing ways to say it. Lady Gaga is “doing”, not “being.” It’s an important distinction, boiled down into two words, and I’m remembering it as the kids grow up.

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, William Kuhn – I don’t know who recommended this book, but whoever it was, Thank you! There is an identifiable style of writing coming from the UK nowadays that I particularly enjoy. I think it’s becoming its own genre. The language tends to be plain and relatively simple. The words chosen are precisely the right words and convey the exact nuance that the writer intends. The subjects are usually fairly matter-of-fact and down-to-earth. For all that that sounds so boring, the results are incredibly charming and addictive. There is amazing depth of emotion, and all kinds of nuance, and it’s clearly conveyed yet not obvious. There are no signposts, but you find your way anyway. How do they do it? Mark Haddon writes in this style, as does Kate Atkinson, and now William Kuhn. I would tentatively put Alan Bradley in this category as well. The details provided are the details that enhance the story and add interest, not long paragraphs of description that go nowhere. No flights of fancy here! The dialogue is very real and sounds like people talking. I know, when I describe it it doesn’t sound thrilling but it is, it is. If I can’t properly express how wonderful these writers are this is my fault. Anyway, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is a prime example of this minimalist – but not – style that I love so much. It’s hard to believe that it’s fiction, even with the bits about the Queen taking up yoga, as it’s so realistic. Basically, the Queen borrows a hoodie from an employee, gets routed out of the palace grounds by workmen by mistake, then decides to take a train to Edinburgh to see the decommissioned Britannia. She manages to get there incognito – with concerned staff hot on her trail – and is taken for a cleaning lady by the guards at the port. She actually does the washing-up in the galley – my favorite part. Charming and fun. I’m a bit of an Anglophile so I was particularly enchanted but I think anyone would enjoy this book.

At my local branch of the Vancouver Public Library, there are shelves in which library staff arrange books according to a weekly or monthly theme, or just “staff picks.” Whoever they are, they have the best taste. I have found so many new writers just by trusting in their judgment. In a Foreign Country by Charles Cumming is my latest leap of faith and I was amply rewarded. I adore spy and crime novels, especially period ones, and this book sent me rushing back to the library website to find his other books. They all came in today and I’m gloating over the pile like Midas. Having a big stack on my bedside table makes me feel rich, rich, rich. And under pressure.

John Elder Robison is the older brother of Augusten Burroughs, who is famous for writing Running with Scissors, which was made into a movie. Robison has Asperger’s Syndrome, and has written two books already about his experiences, Look Me in the Eye and Be Different. Raising Cubby is his latest, and I only found it because the wonderful library people had set it aside in the “New” section. Raising Cubby is about his son, who also has Asperger’s – no surprise, as Robison’s wife also has Asperger’s. Cubby’s interest in chemistry led to his experimenting with explosives which led to his being charged with making bombs. The problem with a lot of gifted kids, especially those who are on the Asperger’s scale, is that they are so absorbed in their interests that they can’t imagine how they might be perceived and misunderstood by others and Cubby is a prime example. Combined with a DA who thinks convicting a teenager will boost her career, the situation becomes a nightmare. I am loving books like this, and also fiction that tackles brain disorders like Lisa Genova’s books, Still Alice, Left Neglected and Love Anthony (which I haven’t read yet but am saving). Robison is a spokesperson for Asperger’s and an amazing writer.

Selling the Dream: Ken Campbell is a sports writer with deep roots in the hockey community. Selling the Dream is about how hockey has become a rich man’s sport, with every parent whose kid can stay upright on skates having NHL dreams and sparing nothing to achieve them. I don’t want to say too much here, because this is a controversial topic and people can be crazy when it comes to kids and hockey. I don’t need nutters Googling Campbell’s book and coming up with this and then freaking out at me, which has actually happened already on another topic. I don’t even have a son, which, frankly, I’m almost grateful for as I suspect my husband would be just as hockey-mad as some others around here. It’s like I’ve dodged a bullet. Basically, Campbell is saying that you can’t manufacture a star player. But people are trying, by throwing money at coaches, trainers, elite hockey schools, spring hockey, summer hockey, you name it. Interestingly, he’s critical of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – Gladwell’s theory of the magic number of 10,000 hours to achieve proficiency has, in his opinion, given rise to much of this mania. This theory has misled many into thinking that if they can just get their kid enough ice time, enough training, enough games, that they will morph into an NHL player. It’s sad. There are so many stories of families who make incredible sacrifices in order to fuel this dream, and generally – like, 99.99% of the time – their dreams are not realized. People start putting money into their kid’s hockey, then put in more because of the psychology of previous investment, and then because they’re so invested the kids feel incredible pressure to perform. Even if they don’t want to play any more, they feel they don’t have a choice. What kind of childhood is that? Then, paradoxically, the parents are willing to risk this investment – and their child’s health – by often insisting that the child play with concussions and injuries. There is a whole chapter on this and it is heartbreaking. OK, I said I wouldn’t say a lot here and I’ve said more than I meant to already. Anyway, Campbell says sure, chase the dream, but have some perspective, that’s all. What kills me is that the people who really should read this book, won’t.

Eclectic enough for you? You won’t hear from me for a while as I’m just starting In The Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire by Tom Holland. 428 pages. I’ll be finished by the end of the week, insha’allah, provided I’m not distracted by the pile of spy novels calling my name.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “My eclectic reading list

  1. Lea, Thank you so much for posting about Mrs Queen Takes the Train. I loved hearing that the washing up scene was your favourite part. My name is William, well, Bill really, not Howard but this is an obscure detail. I wouldn’t worry about posting images of the cover. Everyone does it and I’m certainly not going to sue you. I’m going to give you a big hug (when I see you). Bill Kuhn

    • Bill, I am covered with shame that I got your name wrong! I’ve actually downloaded the book at this point but when I wrote the review I had a library book that had to be rushed back to the library (because everyone wants it now) and I was too lazy to double-check the name. My apologies. I’ll go fix that! I’m glad you liked the review because I absolutely loved Mrs. Queen and I’m going to be looking up your other work. Now you must stop wasting time on the Internet and immediately go start another novel because we’re waiting! Hugs to you too, now go get writing.

  2. Helen Moore

    ooh, mrs. queen takes the train sounds awesome! was thinking of you today as i made a recipe from your book. there’s your beautiful smiling face, looking out at me. made me feel warm and happy. love love love,me xo

    Date: Tue, 28 May 2013 04:06:02 +0000 To: helenm_moore@hotmail.com