Books I Love

File my reading habits under A for Avid. Or maybe it's I for Intermittent. I love to read, but I need a book I can commit to; a book that will pull me into it quickly before I drift into worrying about work or unwashed dishes.

My favourite novels seem to have a few recurrent themes. Many have a strong political streak, and are either about electoral politics or address major political issues. I notice that many of the books I admire most are stories that weave together multiple perspectives on colonialism. I also love to read books about the techie world, though I fear this genre is being so heavily promoted that it now includes a lot of junk. And then there are my residual categories: books by gay men, and straight women. What's that about?


coverThe Map of Love

by Ahdaf Soueif

This is an absorbing multi-generational romance with strong political overtones. The contemporary story focuses on two cousins, one American and one Egyptian, and their efforts at reconstructing their family history. The back story is the turn-of-the-century tale of their grandmother, an Englishwoman who falls in love with an Egyptian. The stories of both generations provide a window on the overarching history of Anglo-American imperialism in Egypt. Nominated for a Booker prize.



Thank You for Smoking

by Christopher Buckley

Who thought the tobacco lobby could make you laugh? Big Tobacco and the anti-smoking movement both take their share of ridicule as we follow the misadventures of the tobacco industry's chief lobbyist. Along with his buddies, the lobbyists for the gun and alcohol lobbies, he's part of the MOD Squad, as in Merchants of Death. Ignore the two-dimensional love interest and you'll be able to delight in the rest of the book.


The dirty truth

Let me start by begging you to buy any of these titles (or other books) from your local independent bookstore. Living in a city where virtually every independent bookstore has been driven under by the Book Behemoth, I can't tell you how much I miss going into the kind of real live bookbuying environment that Amazon et. al hope to put out of business.

That said, if you are forced into the cruel world of the megastore, and decide to buy a book online, I will get a little kickback from each purchase you make through this page. All you have to do is click one of the links on this page.

Support your Local Independent Bookseller!

Some of my favourites are:

Bailey/Coy Books in Seattle.

Pages in Toronto.

The Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge, MA.

Powell's in Portland, OR.

Foyle's in London (just don't let the nice manager talk you into buying the novel that turns out to be a vegetarian manifesto.)


How it works

I bet you're feeling pretty impressed by all the graphics and hyperlinks on this page. That's right, every one of these books is hyperlinked directly to Amazon.

That link will take you directly to the book's page on Amazon's site. Add the book to your basket immediately (you can always delete it later). If you browse around a bit before adding the book to the basket, I lose the kickback that Amazon gives me for directing you to your site. And of course I will use those kickbacks to buy educational books that let me finish my dissertation and publish it as best-selling book in which I will personally thank you so that you can point out your name when you take a date to the bookstore.


The Man of the House

by Stephen McCauley



I feel like McCauley is my gay alter ego. Each of his four novels seems to address some issue I'm currently mulling over. I can only conclude that's he's just enough ahead of me to digest his crises and turn them into novels, in time for me to read during my crises. Best of all, he has a wonderful sense of humour. "The Man..." had me giggling out loud long before it reduced me to cathartic tears. McCauley's best, along with "The Object of my Affection" (yes, it was made into a movie.)



English Passengers

by Matthew Kneale

This Booker nominee should have beaten Atwood's "The Blind Assassin". It weaves together the stories of aboriginal people and colonists in Tasmania, and shows the corrosive impact of colonization on everyone involved. It takes a little while to grab your attention, but becomes a real page-turner.



coverThe Hours

by Michael Cunningham



I discovered Cunningham's first novel, "A Home at the End of the World", thanks to Michael at Bailey/Coy books in Seattle. The Hours is an homage to Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway" that intertwines Woolf's own life with two contemporary American stories. We used an excerpt in our wedding ceremony. It's a beautiful and moving book; but Cunningham's first novel ("A Home..") may be more absorbing.

The House of Mirth

by Edith Wharton

You know how reading Jane Austen makes you want to shake the protagonist, and tell her to just be direct with the guy? In Edith Wharton's world, most coverpeople are direct, but the women are still trapped by the social conventions of upper class New York society. Lily Bart, the heroine of the House of Mirth, is caught between the dilemmas of class and poverty: shuttling between the houses of various wealthy friends, can she bring herself to marry into a home of her own? Wharton's quirky characters and gossipy storylines make her my favourite writer; but there is a big drop in quality when you move into her more obscure work. "The House.." is one of her greatest books, though also the most dramatically anti-Semitic. It certainly gives me insight into why my grandmother (one generation removed from Wharton's world) hated admitting that she was Jewish.



Crossing the River

by Caryl Phillips

The book begins with a vignette: an African chief who sells his children to a slave ship. Each of the subsequent chapters stands alone as a short story, but each one involves one of the chief's children or one of their descendants. Phillips is fascinated by perspective: his books usually shift voices, and get inside the minds of very different characters. In this book Phillips channels his voices through different media, too. These include the log of the slave ship's captain, the letters exchanged by a freed slave and his former owner, and the internal musings of an English woman during Word War Two. An incredible portrait of the effects of slavery.

A Widow for One Year

by John Irving

When I was in high school I went through a brief John Irving phase, but it had been years since I picked up one of his books. "Widow" is one of those books where you love every character despite -- no, because of -- their flaws. And this being John Irving, the flaws are on the esoteric side. Only Ruth, the protagonist, seems remotely normal: the rest of her family is a conglomeration of sexual neuroses, unresolved grief, and abandonment issues. You can't help rooting for her as she struggles to extricate herself from her crazy history and find love and happiness -- just the usual stuff. Sadly, Irving's latest doesn't measure up: "The Fourth Hand" is one-third of a fantastic novel, followed by another two-thirds of a really mediocre novel.



Turn of the Century

by Kurt Andersen

I've said it before, and I'll keep saying it: you must read this book. The heroine is Lizzie, a software mogul; the hero is her husband George, a newsman-turned-TV producer. Their story gains momentum as the book progresses, but especially in the first half of the book, the parts are at least as good as the whole. By setting his book a year in the future, Andersen gave himself license to imagine all sorts of brave new world innovations. Imagine the Chopper Channel -- all helicopter footage, all the time; tombstones with live web pages; or a hobbyist who builds an entire city in his garage. A must-read for geeks and media freaks.


Stop! Don't Read That!

Once in a while, I pick up a book that sucks. Sometimes I succeed in putting it back down, but a lot of the time I'm sucked in by the suspicion that it must get better, or who would have published it?

Here's what's on my ick list:

The Biographer's Tale by A.S. Byatt. If anyone reading this has graduate degrees in evolutionary biology and semiotics, please read this book and tell me what it was about. I think there may have been an actual plot and an actual theme in there somewhere, but I am way too literal to figure out what they were.

Lloyd: What Happened by Stanley Bing. You know, this was fine enough. I don't actually need a refund for the hours of my life that I spent reading this book. But I had such high hopes! A book of workplace venom, written in the form of office memos and documents. It turned out to be a kind of banal, guys-talk-about-work-and-chicks kind of thing.

Lucy Crocker 2.0 by Caroline Preston. I really want to like this book. It's part of my campaign to read all novels about the tech industry. But even a protagonist who designs video games can't help me slog though the awkward and obvious prose. I've abandoned this one early on.



Goodbye Without Leaving

by Laurie Colwin

This is one of those books that you just love, even though it's not the greatest book in the world. It's the slightly quirky story of a white graduate student and music freak, who drops out of grad school when she has a chance to sing backup in a Supremes-like girl band. Most of the book is about her struggle to reconcile her brief moment of African-American hipness with the married white suburban banality that follows. But Colwin has such a gentle and affectionate sense of humour that you can't help loving her characters even as you roll your eyes at their neuroses. I loved this book so much that I rapidly read through Colwin's entire oeuvre; none of her other novels come close, but her short stories are gems.



Bel Canto

by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett is another discovery that I attribute to Michael at Bailey/Coy. I picked up Patchett's previous novel, "The Magician's Assistant," on Michael's recommendation, and it took me ages to get past my ensuing desire for a pet bunny. Bel Canto is a much more impressive achievement: a quiet, character-driven story of an international group of high-fliers who are held captive by a band of Latin American rebels. The story focuses on the Japanese tycoon whose birthday occasions the mass kidnapping; the soprano who was the party's star attraction; the translator who mediates between the two; and the translator's own love interest, one of the rebels. It's one of those books that leaves you lonely for the characters. Maybe I should get a guerilla instead of a bunny?

Two Girls, Fat and Thin

by Mary Gaitskill

Do you ever feel suddenly conscious of the thoughts in your head, but don't know how to put them into words? Gaitskill has an uncommon ability to take the most subtle mental processes and express them as coherent ideas. Her two protagonists are women who have survived similarly difficult childhoods in very different ways. One is thin and promiscuous; one is fat and guarded. But Gaitskill takes us inside the emotions that drive their actions, and gives us sympathy without empathy. A painfully healing read.




Behind the Scenes at the Museum

by Kate Atkinson

"I exist!" Not many novels start with the protagonist's conception. But Atkinson starts at the very beginning of her story of a middle class English childhood. The obligatory crazy family becomes prosaic in the eyes of an unflinchingly honest daughter, who narrates her own crisis as honestly as her family's various dramas. This novel was Atkinson's brilliant first; her next book, "Human Croquet", was uninspiring.