The 100 Book Blog

Book #15: Thunderstruck, Erik Larson 

The greatest gig-perk I ever had was a bunch of years ago, when I performed at a co-sponsored Random House/Globe and Mail literary event at Hugh's Room. It was produced by Rheostatic and Bidiniband songwriter, author, and founder of current Toronto newspaper the West End Phoenix Dave Bidini, whose wikipedia page references "Bidini's annual 'Torn From the Pages' literary event, which gathers musicians and writers to create original works based on a single work of fiction, including Linden MacIntyre's Why Men Lie and Michael Crummey's Galore." I've done two of them now, the most recent for Nino Ricci's novel Sleep in 2015, and three years before that, for Linden Macintyre's Why Men Lie––which brings me back to my greatest-ever gig-perk:

The pay, for each of us commissioned back in 2012 to write something inspired by Linden Macintyre's novel, was minimal––a $100 honorarium, plus dinner and drinks––but the other, mind-blowingly exciting recompense was, get this$700 worth of books––any books, of our choosing, then available from Random House Canada's website! Are you kidding me? $700 worth of brand new books?? Which I get to choose at my leisure?? Whaaat? I was like a little kid: I looked at every possibility; I made lists of what I might pick. I took my time, savoured my selection––which in the end comprised about 40 spanking-new books, which were eventually delivered to my house, in three separate boxes, over two days––oh man, it was like Scholastic Book Fridays times a thousand! Opening those deliveries and unpacking my way through those boxes of crisp, beautiful, fresh-ink-smelling editions was the most ecstatic reward, so far, of my life in 

And two of the books in that magical delivery were by Erik Larson.

One was Lethal Passage: The Story of a Gun, Larson's 1994 contribution to the gun-control debate, which I began back then but still haven't finished, and the other one, which I finally read last fall, was Thunderstruck. 

Thunderstruck is the story of two men: Hawley Crippen, the unlikely British murderer whose strange, lurid (and touching) story, and subsequent pursuit and capture ignited the imagination of the world (as well as inspiring Alfred Hitchcock to make Rear Window) and Guglielmo Marconi, the obsessive Italian creator of the wireless. Thunderstruck tells the story of how, despite having never met, neither Crippen nor Marconi would be world-renowned today without the other, and Larson twines these true stories with a novelistic narrative which pulls us headlong into their parallel tales. So good.

The only other Erik Larson I've read is The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America––similar to Thunderstruck in that it braids the macabre story of H.H. Holmes, one of America's first serial killers, with that of Daniel H. Burnham, the architect in charge of the lavishly ambitious 1893 Chicago World's Fair. Again, historical-fiction told in un-put-downable, novelist style. I'd recommend both Thunderstruck and/or The Devil in the White City to anyone. Side fact: the movie rights to Devil were purchased by Leonardo de Caprio in 2010, with Scorcese apparently signed on to direct. 

Since before the time I knew of either of these books, I've been meaning to read Isacc's Storm (still on my list, dammit), Larson's account of the hurricane which devastated Galveston, Texas, in 1900, killing over 6,000 people. "Isaac" is Isaac Cline, the meteorologist who had all the information, but lacked the modern-day understanding of science necessary to grasp the magnitude of what was coming. Again, Larson interweaves the story of the hurricane itself with the story of the man. Yet another unread book, like Larson's In the Garden of Beasts, which I purchased many years ago in some airport or other, that I have to look forward to. 

Dave Bidini still curates a "Torn from the Pages" event each year, but the $700-worth-of-books is no longer on the table. When I performed at the Nino Ricci night in 2015, the reward (aside from the nominal paycheque) was a new song (in my case, "Sleep"), as well as kibitzing with other interesting artists, and getting to hang out two days in a row with Nino, whose company was a joy. But I'll tell you something: if I ever again get my hands on $700 I can spare, you can bet I'm ordering another three boxes of books to have delivered to my door. Best, and most Scholastic-ecstatic gig-perk, ever.

Book #14: More Baths Less Talking, Nick Hornby 

The tagline on this book's cover is "Notes from the Reading Life of a Celebrated Author Locked in Battle with Football, Family, and Time Itself." It's a sexy, slender, perfectly manageable 135 pages, and Hornby's 4th collection of his very entertaining "Stuff I've Been Reading" column for The Believer, in which, each month, he chronicles the books he's read. Each column begins with a ledger which lists that month's BOOKS BOUGHT vs. BOOKS READ. Needless to say, Hornby's book-confessions will speak to anyone with a book problem. They'll especially tickle anyone who has decided, ahem, to write about the ins and outs of their personal reading life. This passage resonated in particular:

The advantages and benefits of writing a monthly column about reading for the Believer are innumberable, if predictable: fame, women (it's amazing what people will do to get early information about the Books Bought list), international influence, and so on. But perhaps the biggest perk of all, one that has only emerged slowly, over the years, is this: you can't read long books. Well, I can't, anyway. I probably read between two and three hundred pages, I'm guessing, during the average working week, and I have the impression - please correct me if I'm wrong - that if you saw only one book in the Books Read list at the top there, it would be very hard to persuade you to plough through what would, in effect, be a two-thousand-word book review. And as a consequence, there are all sorts of intimidating-looking eight-hundred-pagers that I feel completely justified in overlooking. I am ignoring them for your benefit, effectively, although it would be disingenuous to claim that I spend my month resenting you. On the contrary, there have been times when, watching friends or fellow passengers struggling through some au courant literary monster, I have wanted to kiss you. I once gave a whole column over to David Copperfield, I remember, and more recently I raced through David Kynaston's brilliant but Rubenesque Austerity Britain. For the most part, though, there's a "Stuff I've Been Reading"-induced five-hundred-page cutoff.

I won't try to match Nick Hornby's self-deprecating humour regarding the fame, women, and international influence with which any book-diarist has to cope, because while Hornby is an Oscar-nominated, Hollywood-adapted staple, bestselling author, and a regular columist in a hip, globally-read, art-geek magazine - of which I'm a great fan - I'm a virtually anonymous singer-songwriter typing away for reasons much more personal than public. 

And although this 100-book mission of mine's mandate is to finally read 100 of the books which, for one reason or another, have been hanging over my head for years, the truth is, it'll be many months before I'm able to make time for any bouts with the books that are out of my weight class - David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest, for instance, or T.E. Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom - James Michener's Texas, or Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum - or even the comparatively lighter, but still-daunting fare of the mighty Charles Dickens, of whom Hornby confesses:

If I were walking home down a dark alley, and I got jumped by a gang of literary hooligans who held me up against a wall and threatened me with a beating unless I told them who my favourite writer was... Well, I wouldn't tell them. I'd take the beating, rather than crudify my long and sophisticated relationship with great books in that way. The older I get, the less sense it makes, that kind of definitive answer, to this or any other question. But let's say the thugs then revealed that they knew where I lived, and made it clear that they were going to work over my children unless I gave them what they wanted. (This scenario probably sounds very unlikely to American readers, but you have to understand the violent passions that literature excites here in the U.K. After all, we more or less invented the stuff.) First, I would do a quick head count: my seven-year-old can look after himself in most situations, and I would certainly fancy his chances against people who express any kind of interest, even a violent one, in the arts. If, however, there were simply too many of them, I would eventually, and reluctantly, cough up the name of Charles Dickens.

Incidentally, Hornby goes on to rave about Claire Tomalin's 2011 biography Charles Dickens: A Life, while for me, Peter Acroyd's Dickens (1990) is another one of those tomes (in this case, 1195 pages) from my own library which looms over me at night, like a reproachful monolith, as I toss in a shallow sleep of fitful inadequacy. Not to mention that I have NEVER READ ANY DICKENS aside from A Christmas Carol - which at the very least (he added quickly, fumbling for self-respect) I practically know by heart. Actually, I may have read A Tale of Two Cities and/or Great Expectations as a teenager, but my memory on that is foggy enough that it's easier to say I didn't. So my two takeaways from enjoying Nick Hornby's delightful snack of a diary: I absolutely need to read some Charles Dickens when I'm home from the next tour and able to carve out the time, AND I now have another handful of books (the remaining "Stuff I'm Reading" collections) to track down when this 100 Book Blog is completed.

A final note: this book was a gift to me from my now-deceased and much-loved housemate, Katie Lameck, who gave it to me for my birthday one year while we were sharing a house at 39 Oxford St. in Toronto's Kensington Market. I'm pretty sure that Katie would be entertained by this 100 Book project of mine, and I think, proud of me for doing it. Katie and I, who first met in our early twenties when we worked together at Lichtman's (a belly-upped Toronto book chain of yesteryear), always bonded over reading, and over books, despite that she always found it hilarious that I was known, in small circles, for a show called Bookworm, since, in my actual life, I almost never found time to read. Katie would have read this Hornby collection in an hour or two, giggling all the while. It took this slow poke two weeks, and I'm as proud of myself as a 6-year-old who just managed to finish his first non-picture book - "I did it, Katie!" I wish I could call her to shout, "I read More Baths Less Talking!" Thank you for this book, Katie. It was the perfect read for an over-busy bookworm, and the whole time I enjoyed it, I could you hear you laughing from down the hall.

Book #13: Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark, Brian Kellow 

Last fall, I tackled this beautiful, compelling biography of legendary film critic Pauline Kael, which I've been carrying around since I bought the freshly-printed hardcover in 2011. Let me share this, from its Introduction:

In 1976 she found herself addressing an overflow audience at Mitchell Playhouse in Corvallis, Orgegon, home of Oregon State University...  She proceeded to give a stimulating talk on the current state of movies, then took questions from the audience.

"How many times do you see a movie before you write about it?"

"Only once," replied Kael.

"What about Persona?" asked one senior member of Oregon State University's English faculty. "I had to see it three times before I felt I had any real grasp of it at all."

"Well," said Kael, "that's the difference between us, isn't it?" The line played less insultingly then it might read, and she laughed as she said it. Then she went on to explain that she felt the need to write in the flush of her initial, immediate response to a movie. If she waited too long, and pondered the film over repeated viewings, she felt that she might be in danger of coming up with somehting that wouldn't be her truest response.

Someone else in the audience persisted with a question along similar llines: 

"But if you were going to see one movie again, which one would it be?"

"I'd always rather see something new."

After a few moments of back and forth, a man in the audience raised his hand and asked about Murmur of the Heart, which Kael had reviewed for the October 23, 1971, The New Yorker. He told her that, having seen the film again recently, he had found it sentimental and unconvincing, and wondered if she still recalled it with enthusiasm. 

"Yes," said Kael, "I do."

"Really?" pressed the questioner.

After a stiff silence punctuated only by the clearing of throats and the rustling of programs, Kael fixed her gaze on the man for a moment and gave him a catnip smile.

"Listen," she finally asked, "Do you remember your first fuck?"

"Sure," he answered, flushing, struggling to hang on to his composure. "Of course I do." 

"Well, honey," said Kael, after another perfectly weighed silence, "just wait thirty years." 

This was the Kael that her army of readers at The New Yorker had come to worship - bold, clear-eyed, pithy, a brilliant critical thinker unafraid of a flash of showmanship. Do you remember your first fuck? was, as well as a laugh line, a perfect description of the effect that Pauline always wanted the movies to have on her. 

 I'm flooded with thoughts and impressions: 1. Despite being four years old at the time Pauline Kael gave this Q&A - and 13 years from seeing Louis Malle's Murmur of the Heart for myself at The Mayfair Theatre in Ottawa - in other words, although I missed out on being a movie-literate adult during the cinematically-explosive seventies, I am one of Kael's worshipers - and I'm not sure how you can't be, if you love movies. 2. Also, I'm feeling how difficult it is to write about a book which I finished last fall, wishing I'd done so in the heat of reading it - because it was my intoxicating nightcap for weeks - I was intoxicated by it, by her, and by her intoxication with films, and all their possibilities. 3. So many first fucks come back to me - movies I saw once and which are still tattooed on my nervous system, charged as potently as erotic memories - those times I surrendered absolutely to cinema and was changed - The Piano, Zebrahead, Time of the Gypsies, Léolo, Do the Right Thing all leap instantly to mind - and more recently, Moonlight, The Red Turtle, Manifesto, Kitchen Stories... 4. Goddamit I love the movies, and I love this beautifully written biography. I've seen films these past several months I might never have seen without it (hey Shoot Horses, Don't They? was worth it all on its own). Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark will be impacting my movie choices for years to come - but even moreso will the many volumes of Pauline Kael's reviews and essays and initial, immediate responses to the movies she wrote about - all of those first fucks - which I'll be tracking down just as soon as I get through another 87 of my own damn books...

Book #12: Factotum, Charles Bukowski 

Confession: I bought my ECCO copy of Charles Bukowski’s Factotum many years ago as an intended gift for my brother, which I then never gave him. I kept it to read for myself, which I finally did last summer. I’d give it to him now, but... I kind of want to read it again. (Doug, if you find this blog, it’s yours.)  

  Also, it’s true: I’m way behind on my 100 book reports, but I never stopped reading (for those who just came in, I’ve set out to read 100 of my own, unread books before purchasing another, with a brief word about each as I go). I’m always reading something, usually a couple somethings, but my life as a full-time, independent performing songwriter doesn’t make for a lot of reading-lamp/book-report time. And yes, it’s true that I spend a lot of my free hours watching movies - but hey, in my defense, it’s easier to play guitar while watching movies - AND it was a movie that put the novel Factotum in my hands.  

Years ago, while living in Toronto on Oxford St., I rented Norwegian director Brent Hamer's 2006 film Factotum, based on Bukowski’s book, and which draws from other of his writings as well. The movie is perfect - the tone of it is perfect, it just feels like Bukowski - and it’s hands down my favourite Matt Dillon performance. Anyone who likes to say "movies are never as good as the books" is missing a few tricks, Brent Hamer's Factotum being one. Anyone who tells you you should read the book before seeing the movie, same. Brent Hamer hooked me up with this one (see previous paragraph). 

On the surface of it, the novel Factotum isn't about much ("factotum" translating literally from the latin as "do it all,” is an employee whose job is whatever needs doing, "a jack-off of all trades," as Tom Waits put it). Bukowski's narrator and alter-ego, Harry Chinaski, is an employer's nightmare. Throughout the bite-sized chapters of the book, Harry works a series of mind-numbing jobs - but only for long enough to lay some bets at the track, to buy another bottle, or to walk out of his shift to the nearest bar. Chinaski's a committed alcoholic, a regular at the ponies, a drifter through turbulent affairs with booze-broken women, and a writer - and it's his writing that he protects. It’s the one thing which he never allows his soul-sucking rounds as a “factotum” to touch.  

This is what I love most about Charles Bukowski and/or Harry and/or Henry and/or Hank Chinaski. He never lets the turkeys get him down. He maintains a dignity of soul. He bucks the entire Presbyterian ethic which I was raised, osmotically, to follow. To those for whom having work is the ultimate goal, it would seem that Harry Chinaski doesn’t care about anything - I mean, if he doesn't care enough about the job that pays his bed and board to do it right, then he must just not care. But Bukowski, and his Bukowski-like narrator, care about something harder-won, and harder to define.  

As Bukowski puts it in his poem 'Nobody But You’:  

nobody can save you but 


and you're worth saving. 

it's a war not easily won 

but if anything is worth winning then 

this is it

A decade ago, Vancouver monologuist, director, and playwright TJ Dawe talked extensively and with great passion about Bukowski (and his poem ‘The HIstory of One Tough Motherfucker,’ about the nearly-dead cat he rescued, and loved back to life) in his one-man show Totem Figures, which I saw when it toured in 2008.  

Around the same time, I found myself in a Halifax used bookshop, looking for Bukowski, but didn't find any. They were sold out, the proprietor said nothing of Bukowski's stuck around for long. The friend who was with me said, "Says something about his writing, doesn't it?" Last year, I did a show in a Toronto bookshop on College St. (Sellers & Newel, Second Hand Books) where I noticed that Charles Bukowski had a high shelf, all to himself, over the doorway at the back. "That's because people steal Bukowski," said Peter Sellers. "He doesn't survive in general population."  

As Bukowski himself says in his poem 'I'm Flattered,' "I was on the minds of a lot of people. it was my own fault for being so easy to read."   

He definitely is - but anyone who’s tried, knows: it might be easy to read him, but it’s not so easy to write like Charles Bukowski. Bukowski's earned his hype. He deserves to be sold out, shoplifted, spoken of evangelically by other writers, covered by Tom Waits, and painstakingly made into beautiful films by Norwegian directors; he deserves to be the gift for your brother that you kept for yourself. Which reminds me, I still have a borrowed copy of Sifting Through the Madness for the Word, the Line, the Way. (Eva HD, if you find this blog, it’s still safe.) Maybe I'm just a Bukowski-clutching book miser, or maybe it says something about his writing... I’ll let you decide (and check out the movie Factotum while you’re at it).

Book #11: The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss 

As happens with the best books, I didn't know this one or its author even existed until I saw it on a friend's shelf. My friend, when I asked about it, spoke of Patrick Rothfuss in a "he's the real deal" tone of voice which made my book sense tingle. This wasn't the generic fantasy it might be mistaken for at first glance. Something was happening here.  

It didn't hurt that singing its back cover praise was Ursula K. Le Guin, a favourite writer, storyteller, and poet (whose name is a poem itself), who had this to say:

"It is a rare and great pleasure to find a fantasist writing not only with the accuracy of language that is essential to fantasy-making, but with true music in the words as well." Which means a lot, coming from a writer whose very book titles are little word riffs (The Left Hand of Darkness, The Word for World is Forest)and who wrote A Wizard of Earthsea - not just my favourite "wizard student" story (putting Harry Potter to shame), but also a novel I've read aloud to friends, and children of friends, and a "story of service" which I will always return to.

I didn't know, when I began this particular post, that Ursula Le Guin had just died. Eight days ago, aged 88, at her home in Portland, Oregon. Losing her at this time is as sad as it was to lose Leonard Cohen. Another voice that can make sense of the world has gone out. Fortunately for us, in both cases, we have their work, through which we still have their love and wisdom.

In Le Guin's (both loving and wise) Earthea Trilogy, of which A Wizard of Earthsea is the first, magicians are called "Mages." In Patrick Rothfuss's The Kingkiller Chronicle, the trilogy of which The Name of the Wind is first, Wise Man's Fear second, with a third yet to be released, magicians are "Arcanists."

In Le Guin's Earthsea, a mage wields real power in the world only when they've learned the true names of things. Rothfuss is another Ursula Le Guin fan, and his world (called only "The Four Corners of Civilization" on the map which prefaces the book) is entirely his own, but with this nod to the mages of Earthsea: what sets Kvothe, his adventure-prone protaganist, on his journey to deeds and exploits, is that, as a boy, Kvothe befriends an arcanist - in whose company he happens to be when - in a moment of need - the arcanist summons the wind to his aid.

The wind answers, because the arcanist possesses its true name.

The rest of the story is what happens when Kvothe sets out to learn the name of the wind.

A personal triumph: I read this entire 662-page book while on tour with Jonathan Byrd last May in Texas. I always bring unwieldy books on tour, only to lug them home more convinced than ever that I'll never have the time to read them. Not good for the shelf-esteem (thought of it as I wrote it, couldn't resist). But I opened The Name of the Wind in the van, and despite its heft, could not put it down. In fact, I haven't had that kind of adrenalized read, the kind during which you're thinking only about when you'll next get to open the book, since. I didn't want it to end, but I finished it in Austin and left my copy with the woman we stayed with. I've since bought 5 more and given them all away.  

Also, The Name of the Wind has a one-page prologue to match the word-overture of Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes for read aloud-ability. I've already got it half-memorized from sharing it aloud with anyone who'd listen. 

Before I leave you to find your own copy, let me say that this is the kind of book readers like myself hope to find but so rarely do: a story of magic, music, and adventure, grit and gravitas, the prose of which sings its own strength - and which deserves to share the shelf with time-honoured classics by Tolkien or Lewis; and for my money, from the generation which followed, Michael Ende, Phillip Pullman, and Ursula K. Le Guin. In other words, with The Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss has given us the makings of a new staple.

Although it's hard to know that Ursula Le Guin is gone, it feels appropriate to be posting about The Name of the Wind at the time of losing her, because I was reminded so much of my love for her when I read it. So let this post double not just as my report on discovering Patrick Rothfuss, but as my highest recommendation for Le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, which is such a gift: A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, and The Farthest Shore. They aren't just fantasy of the highest order - they're also a life-comfort, like our wisest friends. The ones we can call on when times are tough. 

In fact, I think it's time I return to them myself. 

Book #10: Personal, Lee Child 

My unread books really do taunt me and mock me from the shelves. They know my name. They hiss at me as I go by. The titles are my recriminations. They cause me to feel inadequate, exhausted, and overwhelmed. 

I should pause for a moment to say that when I feel connected to my books - that is, when I'm giving them love  - they're the most soothing company. I walk amongst them like a contented pedestrian perambulating through a favourite, familiar city in springtime. When we're in love, my books are my kin and my home.

A relationship with a library is as complicated, as ever-changing, and as in need of care and attention as any human friendship or marriage. And when that relationship is neglected - when that bond feels disconnected - books can be as distant from us, and as painful to our minds as people from whom we're estranged.

But books, if you love them, will only love you back. And maybe that's why I'm typing these words: to give my books some love.

Take this one, for instance: Personal - which is how it felt. And sure, it's more often hefty, unread classics of literature that are the most daunting (Moby Dick was my nemesis for a decade, before becoming one of my favourite things), but what's even more emasculatory for me, as a reader, is to be daunted and haunted by a mass market paperback like Personal. An airport book! Designed to be devoured frivolously between ports! A bag of chips thriller, and like a bag of chips, mostly air - which I did in fact purchase while awaiting a flight, although its time-bleached bookmark, a faded boarding pass inside the front cover, tells me only that my seat was 32D. 

I didn't read the book while seated in 32D (on the way to wherever), and I didn't read it when it sat on the only bookshelf in the wee one-room apartment I shared with my then-girlfriend for a year and a half. And Personal it became, as it moved from shelf to box to shelf, and the title itself seemed to spice itself with its mockery: "Whatsa matter, Corin? Are you scaared? Scared you won't be able to get through me... a little ol' airport read? Whatsa matter, don't have time anymore? Too busy out traipsing around with your little show, what's it called again?... Bookworm?... Hah hahah hahahha! You're no bookworm! You're a soft-brained fraud who can't even finish an airport book! You'll never read me, 'Bookworm'! Hahahha!"

Well I read you, you little fucker. And now I can't even remember you - so take that! 

Because despite Stephen King's "The best one yet" endorsement on the backcover, you're exactly like every other Jack Reacher story. If I reread you now, I wouldn't even be able to remember whether I'd read you before or not. I'd be, like, "Hmm. This seems to be the one where Jack Reacher knows everything about... everything. But oh, yes, this story is distinguished from the others by a shadowy conspiracy which pulls Reacher into its dangers, the tendrils of which go much higher up than anyone (aside from Reacher) had suspected - ah, but what truly sets this one apart is the strangely attractive female agent with whom Reacher is paired, the one with a dark past, who will, by her own choice, face a peril which will cause her to relive the trauma she's been trying so hard to put behind her..." You know the one. That one.  

But most of all, it's the one where Reacher knows everything. He knows what the door is made of, because he knows the architectural history of this particular neighbourhood. He knows how much pressure it can withstand, and how far a bullet will enter it before it's stopped. He's an engineer, a carpenter, a chemist. He's an expert, in whatever you want, all the time. He even speaks French! The last thing, if you've read a dozen Jack Reachers, that you can imagine him doing. He also has a Google Maps-level knowledge of every alley and side street in Paris - of course he does! Because his memory is a fortress, and it turns out, his mother was Parisian! He did a bunch of his growing up there - and what would make you think that Jack Reacher could get lost, anyway? Jack Reacher doesn't get lost. Jack Reacher doesn't need directions. Jack Reacher is the right answer that walks like a man. My ex-girlfriend put it best when she said, "The way Jack Reacher talks, when he always has the answer and is an expert in everything? Most men, when they're talking, think that that's how they sound." Best. Review. Ever.

Jack Reacher, like the gunslingers of western yore, is perfect. He's the lone stranger who exists in unsullied isolation, needing no one, staying for no one. He's the ultimate male fantasy - or rather, the ultimate male fantasy of a male. And all of this is coming from a willing male-fantasist (and his ex-girlfriend) who have much enjoyed the lonely perfections of Jack Reacher.

I also love that Lee Child isn't Lee Child at all - that he's a British, ex-television man named James D. Grant who worked, over a twenty-year career, on some of my favourite British televsion shows (Brideshead Revisited and Cracker, to name two), and who created the pen name Lee Child so that his books would sit squarely between Raymond Chandler and Agatha Christie on the mystery/crime section shelves. How cool is that?

I also love that the name of his hero came from what his wife would call him when she wanted something from the high shelf at the grocery store: "Hey, Reacher," she'd say to her tall and lanky husband, "Use your reach and reach that jar down for me."

I also like to think (for my own private amusement) that if Mad Magazine did send-ups of books instead of movies, they'd call him Jack Retcher.

You can take that or leave it, but for myself, writing a word or two about Jack Reacher has closed the file on a book which used to mock me and daunt me. Posting this has already brought my library and I much closer. I can wander amongst its shelves again. The unread titles feel kinder, more inviting. and no longer quite so personal.

Book #9: The Mountains Won't Remember Us, Robert Morgan 

My father used to tell me that if a book didn't grab me right away, to give it at least 60 pages. He meant novels. His theory being, a novel needs 60 pages for the narrative to have a fair chance to get its traction. With a short story, you don't have that kind of time. It's more like a song; the first few lines are vital; it's got to grab you right off the hop. Well, it took four sentences of "Poinsett's Bridge," the first of eleven faultless stories in Robert Morgan's The Mountains Won't Remember Us, to have my absolute attention.

Here's those first four sentences of "Poinsett's Bridge":

  Son, it was the most money I'd ever had, one ten-dollar gold piece and twenty-three silver dollars. The gold piece I put in my dinner bucket so it wouldn't get worn away by the heavy silver. The dollars clinked and weighed in my pocket like a pistol. I soon wished they was a pistol. 

My copy, pictured here, is travel-warped, its binding reshaped by at least one tour; from being repeatedly stuffed into my carry-on satchel, as well as from being the favourite read-aloud material on several road trips. The stories themselves are well creased by my hands: half of them I've read twice, if not three times. I read them aloud to my girlfriend at the time, to friends visiting our home, and to various van-mates on the road. I found myself revisiting my favourites like poems, like songs, or album tracks. I'll return to this collection for the rest of my life - not to mention that as soon as I'm through these 100 books, I'll be looking up everything else by Robert Morgan.

5 of the 11 narrators (each story is told in intimate first-person) are women, and perhaps because the story which ends the book - the title track, as it were, "The Mountains Won't Remember Us" - is 72 pages (the other ten weighing in around 16-20 apiece), and perhaps because the final story is a woman's, and so powerful that it left me weeping and holding the book like it was a person in need of comfort - maybe that's why the presence of the women feel so strong through this collection.

A word about how I discovered this book:

One of the chief pleasures of having a library in my home  - and I believe that this is one of the things which makes a library a library - is that it contains not only many books I've never read, but many I don't even know I have.

Despite that I purchased this very volume -  its underside slashed with black sharpie, remaindered, wayward - many summers ago at a UofT sidewalk sale. I bought it because it made my book sense tingle. It intrigued. It vibed substance. And it was looking for a library where it could be among friends. I happened to have just the home.

And so it was absorbed into my shelves, and just as there must be a tipping number of drops falling from the sky before we call it "rain," and likewise a requisite number of leaves stirred to life before we say, "wind" - just so, there's a magic number of books (which I passed long ago without noticing) at which it's no longer "a number of books," but a library.

And I know it's a library on the day I return from a tour of the South Eastern States - of North Carolina, for our purposes - and I'm sitting at my familiar desk, and a title jumps out at me from my own shelf, at gaze-level - a book which I vaguely remember purchasing, but whose contents are totally unknown to me. That UofT summer sidewalk sale is happening again, but at my own desk. 

And I suddenly realize that this book is about North Carolina - that it contains stories, through several generations, about places I've played, passed through, learned about from North Carolina's Jonathan Byrd - places I now know people (at this point I'd been to North Carolina four times). And there I was, just back from the airport, with a piece of Cackalackian history, culture, and poetry at arm's length, looking me in the eye, right when its magic was strongest; just when it could mean the most. 

I'll end by saying that The Mountains Won't Remember Us isn't just a good book, it's a book that is spun out of deep, basic goodness. When Jonathan Byrd talks about songs that help us find our heart strength - songs that help us love - he calls them "songs of service." Well, for my money, these are stories of service. I'll leave you with a paragraph from the story "Poinsett's Bridge" which I love so much that I'm gonna learn it so that I always have it with me:

  Sometimes you get a vision of what's ahead for you. And even if it's what you most want to do, you see all the work it is. It's like foreseeing an endless journey of climbing over logs and crossing creeks, looking for footholds in mud and swampland. And every little step and detail is real and has to be worked out. But it's what you are going to do, what you have been given to do. It will be your life to get through it.   That's the way I seen this work. Every one of that thousand rocks, some weighing a ton I guessed, had to be dressed, had to be measured and cut out of the mountainside, and then joined to one another. And every rock would take hundreds, maybe thousands, of hammer and chisel licks, each lick leading to another, swing by swing, chip by chip, every rock different and yet cut to fit with the rest. Every rock has its own flavor, so to speak, its own grain and hardness. No two rocks are exactly alike, but they have to be put togther, supporting each other, locked into place. It was like I was behind a mountain of hammer blows, of chips and dust, and the only way out was through them. It was my life's work to get through them. And when I got through them my life would be over. It's like everybody has to earn their own death. We all want to reach the peacefulness and rest of death, but we have to work our way through a million little jobs to get there, and everybody has to do it in their own way.

Book #8: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Susanna Clarke 

  My affair with this book began many Christmases ago. Well, I guess before that. It had been out a couple of years; I'd heard about it, picked it up; thumbed its fresh Bloomsbury pages under my nose. I'm pretty sure I bought my copy at Gatwick airport before leaving England the last time - a consolation purchase after being served my ten-year ban in 2007. I don't trust my memory much (more on that in a moment), but that feels accurate.

  In any case, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell made my "book sense" tingle. It felt, in my hand, like a book written purely for the kind of reader I secretly wished I was: the species of bookworm who - far from running round playing shows, meeting hundreds of people while expending vast amounts of social energy in an accelerated, time zone-hopping daze - is most contented and completed when staying home, in a solitudinal pool of armchair light, communing with a book.

  It's really only at Christmas time, or when I'm sick, that I can pretend to be a bookworm of this variety. So it was over Christmas, in Georgetown, ten years ago - fire crackling, dog asleep on the floor - that I was able to let myself disappear into the fantastically bookish world of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

  Unfortunately, I'm a very slow reader - yet another way in which I'm not the sort of bookworm I envy. My girlfriend, for instance, reads at approximately five times my speed. Even in my own head I read at roughly the pace at which I would read the words aloud - which is good for savouring passages, and for remembering particularly sweet phrases - but not so good for gettin' 'er done. Being a slow reader has often left me feeling like a "fake reader" - like maybe I talk about reading books better than I can actually read them.

  So sure enough, I ran out of Christmas before I could finish Jonathan Strange. As it is at holidays, I'd arrived with the fantasy of reading four or five books (as my girlfriend would have), but with the actual result of only getting two thirds of the way through one (albeit 1006 pages). Nothing leaves an insecure bookworm at lower ebb than not even managing to finish one book over Christmas. 

  The crazy thing is, I loved it. LOVED it!

  It brings magic (and the dramatic rivalry of two of England's greatest magicians) into the real world, placing their magic against real history; in this case, the Napoleonic wars, with The Duke of Wellington himself enlisting Jonathan Strange to assist in his campaigns). Not to mention appearances later on, in Venice, by Lord Byron.

  But not only does this story build magic into history and alongside historical personages, it builds a world in which magic is - or was, centuries before, until Strange and Norell bring it back - part of the known fabric of England itself.

  Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is a deliciously bookish story, because not only do the magicians rely on books of magic to work their spells, but the whole book is gratifyingly annotated by its author, Susanna Clarke, who cites an entire world of historical volumes on magic, all of her own "world-building" creation. If you like stories that set you loose in a world not quite our own, and then let you catch up to it as you go, you will LOVE Strange & Norrell

  In fact, if you like to read, and you like magic, and you like stories which mix the actual with the fantastic - then I can't imagine you NOT loving Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. Also, it was made into a seven-part BBC series which, although it takes some liberties with the novel, was satisfying enough that I bought it and have watched it twice.

  Speaking of which, I've now nearly read this book twice, considering I was two thirds of the way through before I first put it down. And here's the crazy thing: although I was absolutely hanging on its every twist and turn that Christmas in Georgetown, when I recently returned to it, I could barely remember a single thing. It came back to me as I reread, but really - isn't it crazy how short and totally unreliable our little human memories are? Which is a gift, I suppose, to us as readers - I mean, not only do we get to reread our favourite stories, but in a lot of cases, we get to read them again for the first time.

  Which explains why these magicians rely so much upon their books (with one of the them being carried about in a most unusual way).

  All in all, a perfect example of what this 100 Book Blog project is all about: a hefty volume which initially was nothing but pure, anticipated joy in my hand, and which after I failed to finish it, daunted me for years - and which now (having read it nearly twice) is a source of delight whenever I think of it, and a book which I consider a dear friend. It was a roundabout way to finally love this (most lovable) book, but it was worth it. I hope you get to curl up with it too.

Book #7: Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson 

  I must have read Treasure Island when I was a kid. Or maybe it was read to me. Or perhaps it's just one of those books, like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Bram Stoker's Dracula, or Stevenson's other best-known novel, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that has insinuated itself so deeply into the public consciousness that it feels as though we must have read it, even if we haven't.

  If, like me, you've lived on the caricatures and imitations but never delighted in the adventure that launched them all, it's well worth it - what a joy! It's a story that pulls you out to sea as surely as the tide, and it has you in its current right from its opening paragraph:


The Old Buccaneer

The Old Sea-Dog at the 'Admiral Benbow' 

  Squire Trelawney, Dr. Livesey, and the rest of these gentlemen having asked me to write down the whole particulars about Treasure Island, from the beginning to the end, keeping nothing back but the bearings of the island, and that only because there is still treasure not yet lifted, I take up my pen in the year of grace 17--, and go back to the time when my father kept the 'Admiral Benbow' inn, and the brown old seaman, with the sabre cut, first took up his lodging under our roof.

  I remember him as if it were yesterday, as he came plodding to the inn door, his sea-chest following behind him in a handbarrow; a tall, strong, heavy, nut-brown man; his tarry pigtail falling over the shoulders of his soiled blue coat; his hands ragged and scarred, with black, broken nails; and the sabre cut across one cheek, a dirty, livid white.

  As for me, I'm not sure what put the book in my hand last week, but like Jim Hawkins, I was instantly pulled into the secretive, seedy, and murderous world of pirates, treasure-hunters, and mutineers. And as I turned the pages, I became awed by the fact that Robert Louis Stevenson - in writing this story, in 1883, for the entertainment of his young stepson - had created the mold for pirate stories ever after. I became hypnotized, as millions of readers before me, by the mercurial charisma of Long John Silver, and I couldn't help but think of how much, and by how many Silver has been counterfeited - but never recreated.  I don't know if a pirate adventure can be named today which doesn't owe a debt to Treasure Island. There would certainly be no Captain Jack Sparrow or Captain Barbossa without Silver; which puts me in mind of another original: Keith Richards. When Johnny Depp was preparing for the role of the lovable, rock n' roll-inspired rogue, Depp asked Richards' permission to use the piratical rocker as the blueprint for his Captain Jack Sparrow.
  And now I can't help remembering an interview with Keith Richards in which the interviewer is talking about the members of young rock bands and Richards, with his buccaneer grin, says "And there's always one of 'em that's supposed to be me."

  Long John Silver could say the same of any number of pirate stories.

  Silver, a character whom Stevenson was rightly proud of, was in his own turn initially inspired by the "maimed strength" of Stevenson's charismatic, crutch-bearing friend, the poet W. E. Henley. Henley may have provided Stevenson with his model - as Keith Richards did Johnny Depp - but Henley recognized that his friend had given the world a true original, saying: 'He, and not Jim Hawkins, nor Flint's treasure, is Mr. Stevenson's real hero; and you feel, when the story is done, that the right name of it is not "Treasure Island," but 'John Silver, Pirate."'

By the powers, you may lay to that.

PICADOR and STAX: Reflections So Far 

  Let me say that only 6 books in, this self-imposed 100-book curriculum is already yielding a very sweet reward: with each book, the reader in me is less of a stranger. For many years, my life as an independent artist has consumed so much of my time and energy that I would often begin books, but rarely finish them. My constant use of the internet and its attendant social media addictions weren’t doing anything for my attention span either. My reading muscles had gone soft. The truth is that without even knowing it’d happened, I’d started to believe that I was not capable of finishing a book. I accumulated them, no doubt about that; I bought them in airports, at outdoor stalls, in impulsively-entered bookstores; I justified the bargain of picking them up by the bagful from discount sidewalk bins outside BMV. I brought home books which smarter people than myself had put out to the sidewalk. I inherited discards from my father, or from friends who were moving and jettisoning their book-weight. It became a reflex to bring home any book in which I had even the vaguest interest, or that I felt would fill a gap in my library’s frame of reference. But I’d lost my sense of myself as someone who could make the time to read them. 

  Book #6 is a perfect example of my book-hoarding addiction. I was walking down Gladstone Ave. in Toronto and came upon some boxes on the curb. A crooked pair of shoes, an old printer - “Still works!” - and a handful of books. I will always, always stop to look at curbside books. For the most part, let it be said, cardboard-box discards deserve their fate. Hoary textbooks, third-tier self-help manuals; hobby-published vanity projects: you can usually feel their dead weight just by looking at them. But you never know… and c’mon, who doesn’t love getting their hands a little book-grimed for that anticipatory tickle that you just might find something you’ve been looking for, or that you weren’t expecting to discover. In this case, first of all, PICADOR. PICADOR is my favourite publisher. Perhaps because, as a seventeen year-old reader, it was a PICADOR edtion of Toni Morrison’s Beloved that had such a powerful impact on me (it's the only book I've ever read four times in a row) - or maybe it's because, over the years, I’ve been consistently knocked out by PICADOR finds (they've never given me a reason to doubt their choices). Maybe it’s the simple beauty of the editions themselves - the typography, the font, the white spines bearing the logo which inspires in me so much confidence - but I've often purchased a book simply because it’s a PICADOR. Along the same lines, I have a friend named Johnny who has a ten thousand-record collection who said that even after his vinyl-stockpiling mania had abated, and he had sold or given away half his collection (there was a chunk of his life during which he would simply buy everything), one label he never walks away from is STAX. The STAX name is its bond. To this day, if Johnny’s never heard of the artist, it doesn’t matter - if STAX put it out, it’s worth having.  

  As far as books are concerned, PICADOR is my STAX.


  So what do I find on the curb but a 1987 PICADOR edition of a Salman Rushdie non-fiction called The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey, published when he had three novels to his name. And despite the fact that I’ve only read Salman Rushdie in fits and starts, his name - like PICADOR - immediately puts me at ease and has my complete curiosity. So what a great find on Gladstone Ave. - and exactly the kind of book which, pre-100 Book Blog, I would have taken home, having experienced the dopamine-rush of having acquired it - and then never been able to make the time, or to summon up the necessary intention - or to even believe, deep down, that I was really going to read it all. 

  Which is why this “program” is already a personal triumph. Because I am reading these books now. I’ve read Cloud Atlas, a book for which I felt inadequately out of shape going into (but which I loved, see Book #4) and I’m excited to read more Salman Rushdie, who already had a place on my 100-book list. But reading The Jaguar Smile reminded me of another reason for this project: to remember that I can simply be surprised by books - in other words, that this playlist is on shuffle - and that as long as they’re my books, anything is possible. And with each selection, my reading muscles grow a little more supple, and my friendship with my library a little warmer.


I have a book problem.

In short, too many years of buying books and not enough reading them. Purchasing and playing with books new and old is an instant, dopamine-unleashing pleasure, I'm sure you know it well. But as Warren Zevon observed in the documentary made in the final months of his life, "When we buy books, we think we're buying the time to read them." My life over the past ten years has been so hectic and unconducive to reading that the "books I've been meaning to get to" have become unacceptably disproportionate to the "books I acquire compulsively." So I decided that I'm going to read 100 of my own books before making another purchase.

I'm giving myself 3 years - distractions and detours considered - and I'm going to make a brief report on each of the 100 as I read them. Stay tuned. Keep reading.

Enjoying the blog? Subscribe to Corin's email list and get a free download of "Trains and Boats and Buses"!

* indicates required