What is going on everyone? Seems like a precarious time for all of us, what with us waiting at a whim for a call by the government to do something, or to support us in this time. Questions abound on whether this is good that “Big Government” is more involved, and thus will potentially become more authoritarian, Or what about that Netflix documentary series Tiger King? What a crazy show that was, and before you ask, yes, Carole Baskin killed her husband, no doubt about it. I bet she was hoping to expose those big cat enthusiasts, but looks like she got the short end of that stick.
Anyway, with all that is going on, I figure it would be a good time to promote reading! I enjoy reading, and I used to read all the time as a kid. I took a huge chunk of time away from reading when I got into boxing though, and I only got back to reading regularly in the last couple years. I read many of Eric Wilson’s books as a kid, with Cold Midnight In Vieux Quebec being my favourite (I still have my library copy from elementary tucked away.) I was a big fan of mystery books, and I got into Ian Rankin and his Inspector Reubus books sometime after, with The Black Book still being one of my favourites. And of course you can’t forget Stephen King, the man that somehow finds a way to understand other peoples perspectives, even a little girls, like with his book The Girl who Loved Tom Gordon. I suppose now would be a good time to read The Shining, I just loved the movie and find it to be a masterclass of storytelling and psychological horror.
I made it a goal last year to read one book a week, which I heard some CEO was doing on the regular, plus I wanted to get away from reading studies and textbooks on biology and human anatomy. I was a bit drained and wanted something more. And so you know, I didn’t end up reading a book a week, but I did manage to read somewhere between 20-30 books, which I was pretty proud of. I picked up books I missed out on reading in high school, I read a few short stories and essays from some notable authors, and I even got into poetry, so much so that I started writing poetry again. Reading again reminded me of a time where I was reading and writing all them. I love learning, and I always have questions about… well everything! It is why I feel happy about going back to school for a purely academic reason. But with all that being said, I want to share with you my Favourite Books of 2019.
10. Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals
Robert Pursig wrote this as a sequel to his widely successful book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which is considered the most successful philosophy book of all time. Robert Redford even wanted to make a movie about it, which he goes into in this semi-biographical novel. Lila follows the continued story of Phadrus, which is a name he coined for his past self in Zen, and his life after the success of his book. He travels around on a boat, recently divorced, and alone. But, he comes across a chance encounter with a women named Lila at a port town he visits. The thing about Pursig is that he doesn’t deliver a pure narrative, he throws in discussion and philosophical inquiry throughout the book. He goes into anthropology, ethics, morality, conforming to societies ideals, western thought on culture, and what culture even is. He throws in some anecdotes from his time spent in University teaching philosophy, and learning from an anthropologist. But the major theme he goes into is values, and what they mean to some people, and if some people have greater significance then others. It is a heavy worded book, and some of the questions posed are definitely head scratchers, but I would recommend Lila for those that have an interest in philosophy. I also recommend you read Zen first, though not necessary. Robert Pursig challenged people to see if they can figure out what the meaning of the book is, with an actual prize for it, but he passed away a couple years ago, so we may never know. Except he started a great discussion, as all great artists and writers do.
9. Mother Night
I kept seeing a YouTube video on Kurt Vonnegut on my recommended feed, and the video was what his thoughts are on the types of stories that exist. I finally decided to watch it, and I found him hilarious, what with this old dude just talking and talking like a grandpa at a dinner table, telling funny stories, and making funny remarks. But the thing that stuck out for me was when he spoke of Shakespeare, and how he doesn’t know right from wrong, but neither do we. He says that is what makes it a masterpiece. He then speaks of his Uncle Alex, and mentions how at times he says “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is” alluding to the fact that we sometimes don’t know when we are happy. His own way of saying to practice gratitude, and to do so with writing. Hitting people over the head with “This is a good guy” or “That is the bad guy” is pretty simple, but doesn’t provide much inquiry, and it is why I enjoyed Mother Night so much. Howard Campbell is a US spy living in Nazi Germany, who actually moved there when he was 11. Howard stays when his parents leave so he can become a playwright, and later a Nazi propagandist, though is indifferent despite his supposed allegiance. The story is about what our true self is, and the mask we put on can make us forget who we really are. It is the one novel Vonnegut says has a moral, with phrases like “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be,” and “Make love when you can, it’s good for you.” Pretty good book overall,
8. Sex at Dawn
Christopher Ryan and his partner Cacilda Jethá take on the idea of monogamy and whether it is something humans are meant to do. They look at agriculture as one of the points that lead us on this path of monogamy in our culture, and they also look at our cultural history and evolutionary ancestors, along with our more modern relatives like the bonobo. Some scholarly critics have said that Ryan and Jethá don’t have enough evidence and research to make the claims that they do, but I find Sex at Dawn provides enough to make you wonder and ask questions that defy convention, like the institution of marriage, the influence of religion, and the control of people, namely women. Thought provoking, and with some personality to boot makes Sex at Dawn a fun read.
7. The Laughter of Strangers
I already talked about this book extensively on my blog, so you can read all about it here. I don’t have much else to add, except Michael J. Seidlinger really tries to get into the mind of an aging boxer that is defined by his success in the ring. “Sugar” Wilhem Flores narrates this tale, and all he wants is to be remembered. The jarring paragraphs that split up his emotions and thoughts helps you see a little bit more about his mental state. However, the thoughts he has and the experiences he goes through aren’t limited to boxers, and I think there is a a lot of relatable aspects in The Laughter of Strangers.
6. The Handmaid’s Tale
The Handmaids Tale by Margaret Atwood was on my list of books to read for quite some time. I was nervous about reading it as I heard it was a little upsetting; but the truth, or rather, an outcome that can be a consequence of reducing rights should be shown to the world, so as to understand those consequences. For that reason, The Handmaids Tale is considered speculative fiction. In the not so distant future, an oppressive regime seizes control of the United States and creates the country of Gilead, which holds control over people and limits their rights and freedoms, namely to women who aren’t allowed to read, write, own any property, or control their finances. Everyone has societal roles to fill with some women being forced to become “Handmaids,” and are then put into service with “Commanders,” elite men that have more freedoms then the women of this world. The protagonist Offred is one of these Handmaids, and is slave to the Commander “Fred.” One of the purposes of this concubinage is to curb the fertility crisis that is caused by environmental pollution. I don’t know how else to recommend this story, but I was left to think about such a world, and it also brings about questions about our own world, our society, and other countries and the freedoms and rights that some people (namely women) have.
5. Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus
One of the shortest book I read in 2019, but the emotions and romantic imagery are felt so strongly in Mary Shelley’s debut novel. If you aren’t aware, Frankenstein was published in 1818 anonymously, most likely because women faced much prejudice and were not recognized as writers, much like Mary Ann Evens (George Eliot) and Charlotte Bronte. Mary Shelley also wrote Frankenstein when she was 18, and did so because of a contest she had with Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, and John William Polidori. A capital R romantic novel, the emotions of the creature, Victor Frankenstein, and even Captain Robert Walton, the story’s first character we are introduced to, are powerful at times, and they can really hit hard. I heard the emotions of the creature are her own feelings when she was married to Percy Shelley, and the feelings she had when she lost her first child. A terribly sad story, but amazingly written, especially if you like “Ye olde” English.
4. Getting Off: One Woman’s Journey Through Porn and Sex Addiction
I was browsing the cheaper books at my local bookstore when I saw this. The cover surprised me, but made me curious, so I peered through it and damn, I was already surprised with the opening few sentences. Erica Garza opens up about her time as an addict of porn and sex, and tells stories of those times, whether one night stands or long term relationships, she tries to find clarity with her abuse of her addiction, and let me tell ya: it can be pretty raw. At around that time, I watched the movie Wild with Reese Witherspoon , which has a similar story, and it made me think of how some people use sex to escape their thoughts and their insecurities, coping with it like using drugs or booze. It is also noteworthy in the discussion of women in porn and in the media, and when feelings of worthlessness exist, those outlets tend to show a path of least resistance to feeling wanted or needed, which can be problematic.
The book I was told about only last year. I always knew who George Orwell was because of Animal Farm, but 1984 got me on a George Orwell kick lately, the man can write some damn good stories, and some interesting essays too. I feel writing about 1984 is something many people have done already in high school since for some, this was part of the English 30-1 curriculum. I did read it twice and I have so much to say, but I will keep it brief. I think it is a story about government surveillance, totalitarianism, love and destroying our basal emotions, and perceived freedom. George Orwell paints a bleak picture of a world with little to no freedoms within the middle and upper classes, but also about how the party controls people to think and act through propaganda, the news and even the language to suit their goals. Winston Smith is a writer working for the ministry of truth, which is responsible with changing the news and stories when someone goes missing, or when events happen that could pose a problem to the general public. The thing I find interesting is how the freedom Winston wants is something the Proles have, but the cost is ignorance and following a system that uses them up, like with the lottery and how the reason there is any money to be won is because we keep buying tickets hoping to win big. The irony is he has to do the same, feign ignorance and follow the system of loving “Big Brother” and all that the party stands for, which he can’t when he meets and has an affair with Julia. It is a very relevant book, and I highly recommend 1984 if you have not already read it, but I think one book is closer to reality then this one, one I also read in 2019.
2. Brave New World
There was another book I read this year by Aldous Huxley, and it was Chrome Yellow, his debut novel. The story, frankly, has a whole lot of nothing that goes on, and while that may be, the characters interact and learn about the world and one another. One of the characters, Mr. Scogan, speaks of a future that is reminiscent of Huxley’s Brave New World, by noting the freedom of Eros, and the lack of family. In Brave New World, people aren’t born, but created in incubators and are assigned specific jobs before they are even born. Alphas are the highest in society and are given many pleasures to feel happy all the time, like through the free distribution of the drug Soma, television, movies, new things and new clothes, and the freedom to sleep with whomever they want, because “everyone belongs to everyone else.” One of the characters, Bernard Marx – an Alpha, feels out of place in this society, and because he also works in the area of sleep hypnotism (which is how people learn to behave as they do), he comes to dislike the way the society works. Another character, John, who is from an outside world that still has family values, wishes to explore this “Brave new world!” I always wondered where Huxley was speaking from, a place of malice at the freedoms people want, or on how the things we think we desire are actually ways to control us. I like to think it is the latter because it is so evident in this day of technology, but criticism of certain groups and minorities gaining a voice, or some governments relinquishing rights away from women for example, those have me thinking cynically of this. I mean who knows, the utopia depicted is built on scientific inquiry that allows for freedom, so long as people feel they are free, while the opposite that was prominent before WWII is built on Christian values and the idea of the “Family household.” But hey, read it yourself and let’s start a discussion.
1. Hey Nostradamus!
I was reading this on a hot summer day after I taught a class, and I couldn’t put it down. I ended up walking around town while reading this book, finally finishing it at a cafe. I was so sucked into the story because I saw myself in one of the four main characters, Reg Klassen. But all the characters are interesting to observe and learn about. Douglas Coupland wrote this in response to the Columbine shootings, and as a way to talk about the victims of the shooting since they were shadowed by the shooters. This tale asks many questions, like: Is being right all the time really the way to live? Sure, having the knowledge to understand a situation or something objective is nice and dandy, but is going to far with it a way to keep people in your life? Are our values and beliefs worth holding high and above those we love? Is finding meaning in life a fruitless endeavor when we will only end up 6 feet under? What about old memories or lost loves, do we truly ever forget them, and if not, how much influence do those memories have on our lives? Those questions and more are asked through the lives of the four characters in this book. It really struck a chord with me, and I have read this book three times now and am now reading it a fourth time. There is some dark humour in here, and some crazy intense moments as well, but I think learning more about the human experience involves that ying and yang, seeing the hard times with the nice times.
Other Noteworthy Books
Keep the Aspidistra Flying is a book George Orwell has said he regretted writing, and only did so because he needed money. I mentioned Chrome Yellow by Aldous Huxley already, and while uneventful, it was still an interesting tale. Loner by Teddy Wayne, what starts as a coming of age story turns into a tale about a potential sociopath that seeks to rid himself of his previous life while in Harvard. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, a story about staying true to your goals, a beautiful novel that can also be seen as a self-help book. The Trial by Franz Kafka, a very dark tale that is kind of like 1984, in that conforming to our current reality will give us a perceived “freedom.”
What were some of your favourite books that you read in 2019? I am sure you noticed that none of these books were written in 2019, but you know, books are timeless! I believe something is new when we haven’t experienced it, or seen it. Stay safe, and share your thoughts!