Reading – a year in review, 2015

2015 was a good year for reading. I discovered new authors whose work I enjoyed: Willa Cather, Tom Drury, Edward St. Aubyn, and Jane Gardam. I continued my affection for authors with whom I had already been acquainted: Jane Austen, Elena Ferrante, Colm Tóibín, Richard Ford, and Elizabeth Hay. I also wrote short reviews of each book I read this past year and posted them on LibraryThing, a few of which I re-posted here on this blog. I’m already looking forward to another great year of reading ahead.

Stats from my 2015 reading list:

  • 29 were borrowed from our public library
  • 15 have Canadian authors
  • 12 were chosen due to personal recommendations from friends
  • 13 are by authors who appear more than once on the 2015 list
  • 3 were being reread
  • 1 was read aloud by my wife and me
  • 11 are non-fiction
  • 0 are ebooks

Books read in 2015 (80):

  • Birkerts, Sven. My Sky Blue Trades
  • Bausch, Richard. Peace
  • Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice: An Annotated Edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks
  • Koch, Herman. The Dinner
  • Snyder, Carrie. Girl Runner
  • Modiano, Patrick. Suspended Sentences
  • Ferris, Joshua. To Rise Again At A Decent Hour
  • Mandel, Emily St. John. Station Eleven
  • Smith, Ali. How to be Both
  • Herbert, Frank. Dune
  • Crummey, Michael. Sweetland
  • Bechtel, Greg. Boundary Problems
  • Modiano, Patrick. Dora Bruder
  • Howe, Gordie. Mr. Hockey: My Story
  • Tóibín, Colm. Nora Webster
  • Nabokov, Vladimir. Laughter in the Dark
  • Veronesi, Sandro. Quiet Chaos
  • Sedaris, David. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
  • Petterson, Per. Out Stealing Horses
  • Smith, Ali. There but for the
  • Ware, Chris. Building Stories
  • Li, Yiyun. Kinder Than Solitude
  • Ford, Richard. Wildlife
  • Davis, Lydia. Can’t and Won’t
  • Chast, Roz. Can’t we talk about something more Pleasant?
  • Grossman, Lev. The Magician’s Land
  • Drury, Tom. The End of Vandalism
  • Ayoade, Richard. Ayoade on Ayoade: A Cinematic Odyssey
  • McCracken, Elizabeth. Niagara Falls All Over Again
  • Franzen, Jonathan. Freedom: a novel
  • St Aubyn, Edward. Lost for Words
  • Flanagan, Richard. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
  • Gardam, Jane. Old Filth
  • Oyeyemi, Helen. The Icarus Girl
  • Modiano, Patrick. Missing Person
  • Szabó, Magda. The Door
  • Baxter, Greg. Munich Airport
  • Smith, Ali. The First Person and other stories
  • Daoud, Kamel. The Meursault Investigation
  • Grant, Rickford with Phil Bull. Ubuntu Made Easy: A Project-Based Introduction to Linux
  • Blum, Richard and Christine Bresnahan. Linux Command Line and Shell Scripting Bible
  • Bradbury, Ray. Driving Blind: Stories
  • Gibb, Camilla. The Beauty of Humanity Movement
  • King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft
  • Gardam, Jane. The Man in the Wooden Hat
  • Helm, Michael. In the Place of Last Things
  • Gardam, Jane. The People on Privilege Hill
  • Gardam, Jane. Last Friends
  • Bernhard, Thomas. Correction
  • Murakami, Haruki. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle
  • Tyler, Anne. A Spool of Blue Thread
  • St. Aubyn, Edward. A Clue to the Exit
  • July, Miranda. The First Bad Man
  • Ferrante, Elena. The Story of the Lost Child
  • Eisenberg, Jesse. Bream Gives Me Hiccups and other stories
  • Cotterill, Colin. The Coroner’s Lunch
  • Oyeyemi, Helen. Mr. Fox
  • Egan, Jennifer (ed.) The Best American Short Stories 2014
  • Schofield, Anakana. Martin John
  • DeWitt, Patrick. Undermajordomo Minor
  • De Sa, Anthony (compiler), Rideout, Tanis (compiler), and Snyder, Carrie (compiler). The Journey Prize Stories 27
  • Bostridge, Ian. Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession
  • Oyeyemi, Helen. Boy, Snow, Bird
  • Wood, James. The Nearest Thing To Life
  • Rachman, Tom. The Rise and Fall of Great Powers
  • St. Aubyn, Edward. On The Edge
  • Zentner, Alexi. The Lobster Kings
  • Hay, Elizabeth. His Whole Life
  • Cather, Willa. My Ántonia
  • Drury, Tom. Hunts in Dreams
  • Cather, Willa. Death Comes for the Archbishop
  • Drury, Tom. Pacific
  • Hardcastle, Kevin. Debris
  • Bicknell, Jeanette. Philosophy of Song and Singing: An Introduction
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. Innocence
  • Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility: An Annotated Edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks
  • Cather, Willa. The Professor’s House
  • Berger, John. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor


Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Sense and Sensibility by Jane AustenOn rereading Sense and Sensibility slowly and with immense pleasure, as befits this beautiful Belknap Press annotated edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, I am awestruck by Austen’s maturity and delicacy in this her first published novel. The opening two chapters which set the scene with the death of Henry Dashwood and then set the plot ticking with the magnanimous ungenerosity of the sole heir, John Dashwood, toward his step-mother and his three step-sisters are so finely polished that you might imagine Austen writing and rewriting them for years on end. Indeed, much of the first volume is near this level of concentrated effort. The second volume, less so, and the third more sprawling still. But by then the reader hardly notices being so caught up in the all too real lives of Elinor and her sister, Marianne. And the horridness of John Dashwood and his wife is equalled, or possibly surpassed, by the self-serving self-love of the faithless Willoughby.

Apart from the mixed characters of Elinor and Marianne, who partake of both sense and sensibility in different measures, the reader is struck by how generous Austen is with the less than perfect men, Edward and Colonel Brandon. These are specimens not on a par with Mr. Knightley from Emma, though clearly gentlemen. They are sad men, stunted in some ways. And it isn’t until their happiness is realized at the end of the novel that the possibility of their being more than they seem can even be considered. Or take a character like Mrs Jennings, who is comic in many respects yet in Austen’s hands becomes the very essence of generosity, kindness, and fellow feeling. These are characters who are determined to think well of and do well by others. If only the same could be said of all of us.

The lengthy opening essay in this edition by Patricia Meyer Spacks is wonderful. After an entire career teaching and writing on Austen and related authors, Meyer Spacks still writes with verve and economy and real interest. Proof, if any could be given, that Austen’s novels have enduring charm and bear repeated readings. By all means, if you are planning to reread Sense and Sensibility, do consider this lovely edition.

See also


In the autumn, my wife and I attended an “experimental” jazz performance held at the Kitchener Art Gallery. It was a lead guitarist (and composer), electric bass, sax, synth, and drums. The music was scored but I think the “experimental” bit was that they were all playing their own thing with no reference whatsoever to the others. The drummer was off in her own world totally drowning out everyone else. But no one seemed to mind. They all seemed to be having fun. At the end of it I turned to my wife and said, “You know, I think I should take up an instrument.” (Because it is unportable, I never really think of the piano as an’ ‘instrument’; it’s more like furniture.) “You should,” she said. “Maybe I should get a guitar,” I said. We often have scintillating conversations like that.

I set about doing my research. I did a fair bit of comparison online in terms of quality at various price points. I settled on either a Seagull S6 Original or a Simon & Patrick Woodland Cedar. I arranged for the local music shop in uptown Waterloo to order both in for me to try out. As it happens both of these guitars are made by Godin in Canada. They are sold at exactly the same price point. And they both have exceptional features for the price. So the decision would largely come down to how they feel.
Simon & Patrick Woodland Cedar
Having tried them both, I decided to go with the Simon & Patrick Woodland Cedar. There was a noticeable difference in the width at the nut and with my smallish hands I liked the smaller dimensions. Although the bodies vary marginally, I couldn’t really find a preference. Both are full size guitars so for me they are rather large, but still manageable.

Along with the guitar I also purchased a hard case so that I can transport it easily and safely in my car. I got a capo and I got a guitar stand because, well, this guitar looks beautiful just standing there in our living room.

Of course once I’d selected my instrument, I needed to relearn how to play the guitar. I had originally learned how to play in school in a guitar group organized by our grade 5 teacher. But I’ve never played very well, and mostly just cowboy chords. These days, however, you can get any amount of teaching you desire on YouTube. And there are dozens of really good intro books in the library. So in what seemed like no time at all I was up and playing better than I ever had before.

Since then I’ve even learned some new songs, including some Billy Bragg tunes and a Hey Rosetta song that we love. And I’m looking forward to many a pleasant hour in the year ahead.


Technical Interlude

During the summer, I was inspired by a friend in England to get back in touch with my inner geek. The result was both surprising and predictable.

Powerline Network

Somewhere along the line I missed out on the news about powerline networks. A powerline network uses your existing home electrical wiring in order to convey network access to, potentially, any electrical outlet in the house. The network connection is hard-wired rather than wireless and thus both more stable and able to support a higher throughput. In theory.

Also in practice, as it turns out. I chose to use a TRENDnet Powerline 500 AV Nano Adapter Kit with Built-In Outlet, TPL-407E2K in order to set up my system. Our house does not have an over-abundance of electrical outlets, so I could not afford to sacrifice any in order to “play” with adding a powerline network.
powerline adapters
I installed the principle adapter in our kitchen where our router is located. The other adapter I installed in my office upstairs. Then I hauled out our old Dell computer that was languishing in the basement in order to have something useful to plug into the network. (Everything else in the house runs off the wireless, but that old Dell has no wireless card.) I was delighted to discover that this worked exactly as promised. I appear to now have a wired network running at 100 Mbps.

Installing Linux (again)

With a solid wired network connected to my old Dell, I took the opportunity to bring my Linux skills back into shape. The first step would be to install the latest version of Ubuntu. That old Dell is a 32-bit Pentium with 1GB of RAM and a 250GB hard drive. It’s got a nice monitor as well. And it had Ubuntu 13.04 installed on it. So the first step was to do a clean install of Ubuntu 15.04. It was certainly a pleasure to have a wired network connection here in my office thus avoiding the need to set up this computer in the kitchen so that I could plug it directly into the router for the inevitable raft of software updates that follow any new Linux installation.

One of my intentions in re-exploring Linux on this Dell was to see whether it could be used as a potential media storage device on the network. My thinking was that I might follow my friend’s lead and install Freenas and then, potentially, connect to the media via Raspberry Pi devices. (Yes, his setup was very nerdy and very cool.) Alas, this Dell is underpowered for such work. So the Freenas option was quickly ruled out. And that scuppered my Raspberry Pi envy as well. So instead I decided to try to solidify my working knowledge of Linux. And that gave me the opportunity to exploit our local public library’s fine collection of geeky books. I started with Ubuntu Made Easy: A Project-Based Introduction to Linux by Rickford Grand (2012) in order to ease my way in. But what it really aided was pointing me toward Linux Mint, which is an Ubuntu derivative that is allegedly more user friendly, especially for those not afraid to work on the command line.

Ah yes, the command line. As it happens, I’ve never been a real adept. So, back to the library. This time I got out Linux Command Line and Shell Scripting Bible: The Comprehensive, Tutorial Resource by Richard Blum and Christine Bresnahan (2015). Now I felt like I was definitely learning something. I even hauled out my rusty knowledge of GNU Emacs and burnished it. Clearly I was having too much fun.

The end result of all this is less satisfying. Since I don’t use these skills on a daily basis, I find that they very quickly drift away. I did take notes this time, but whether I’ll even be able to comprehend my notes come the next time I get my geek on, who knows?

Rethinking Music Options

As mentioned, part of the motivation for both the powerline network and for re-igniting my love of Linux was to potentially mirror the media setup that my more technically able friend was deploying. Although that wasn’t possible, I did continue thinking about whether or not we ought to transform our music setup in the house.

At the moment we have an excellent stereo (amplifier, cd-player, receiver) purchased back in 2000. That does seem like a long time ago now, but these are solid pieces of kit. Yes, they still run on UK voltage, so I have to use transformer. No big deal. And yes, the receiver is calibrated to UK frequencies which do not match up with North American frequencies. So the receiver is less than wonderful. But really we only ever use the cd-player anyway. We also have two Boston Acoustics radios which have fabulous sound for their size. All of our cds are ripped in iTunes (sigh). And we don’t ever merely purchase digital downloads of music. So, is there a game changer out there that could transform our listening lives?

There might be. I’ve recently been enticed by the heavy promotion of SONOS, at least enough to have a salesman walk me through a demo. Impressive. No doubt. But at the moment I (and more importantly my wife) remain unconvinced. I’ll keep thinking about it.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena FerranteOnce again, Elena Ferrante brings the intimate friendship of her principle characters, Elena and Lila, to life, though much of what occurs in this final novel in her Neapolitan series is harmful to their friendship. Elena rushes into her relationship with Nino Sarratore, all the the while trying to suppress her suspicion of Lila’s disapproval. Indeed, much of what Elena does and thinks and even writes in her growing career as a novelist and intellectual is shaped and conditioned either by Lila’s explicit critique or by Elena’s imagined version of what Lila might say. And so Elena acts both for and against her childhood friend, desperate to attain some form of autonomy even whilst she foregoes it in her anxiety. Elena has moved back to Naples, though not the old neighbourhood, with her two daughters. And it is motherhood that comes to dominate the themes here as first Elena and then Lila herself become pregnant. Their shared condition is emblematic of just how entwined their lives have been throughout whether they were conscious of it or not.

Eventually Elena moves with her now three daughters into the flat above Lila’s in the old neighbourhood. Here the ties with the past are strong. But so too are the ties with elements from the earlier three novels. Ferrante weaves the stories together so tightly that everything in the current novel feels as though it might have been there in the very first one, just hidden around a corner. The lives of Elena and Lila, their lovers and children, and their friends from the old neighbourhood breathe with fire. And once that fire catches you, it is nearly impossible to put the book down.

Ferrante’s Elena narrates the whole of this volume but she is not spared. Even when she is most critical of her friend, the reader sees through her fears to the self-doubt at its root. While not an unreliable narrator, we come to see her view as slanted, as given to jealousy and pettiness as any other, and so she becomes, unsympathetically, even more believable. It is a remarkable balancing act. By the end, I found myself reading ever more slowly, fearing with each page the inevitably loss of this brilliant friendship. Fortunately, I can start again almost immediately, which is surely one of the great blessings of novels as fine as these. Highly recommended.

See also