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Tyee Books

Ideal Summer Reads

For traffic unjamming, romance unveiling, scandal unraveling and more.

Tyee Staff and Contributors 18 Jun

Contributing to this list: David Beers, Geoff D'Auria, Crawford Kilian, Colleen Kimmett, Michael LaPointe, Monte Paulsen and Robyn Smith.

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Hot, off the presses.

Monday's the first official day of summer and that means it's time to put that relaxation thing at the top of your to do list. The Tyee gladly obliges by flagging more than 30 perfectly appropriate reads for various summery occasions, whether it's tending to the garden, the new baby, the beer keg or the life plan you've been meaning to revise the next time you're on a beach.

What to read between puttering among the petunias and parsley:

The Way of the Gardener: A Life's Journey by Des Kennedy (Greystone Books) and City Farmer: Adventures in Urban Food Growing by Lorraine Johnson (Greystone Books)

If you're an old hand at gardening, you'll appreciate the rich, loamy philosophizing in Des Kennedy's memoir. His life is a winding vine, with roots in the Beat poetry world of New York that blossom into a bucolic farmer's life on B.C.'s Gulf Islands. If that sounds too sappy, have no fear. Kennedy is a lot more funny (won the Leacock Award) than preachy. But if you are just breaking into the vegetable growing game, you might first want to dig into Lorraine Johnson's friendly, smart handbook for the city farmer. Vancouverites, amidst their poultry regulation revolution, will find useful chapter nine: "What the Cluck? Backyard Chickens."

Best book for a bewildered new dad:

C'Mon Papa: Dispatches from a Dad in the Dark by Ryan Knighton (Knopf Canada)

Bringing home a baby is an exciting and daunting experience for any new parent -- now imagine if you literally couldn't see the kid for whom you are responsible. Knighton started losing his sight when he was 18, and by the time he and his wife had their daughter Tess, he was almost completely blind. His memoir of those first years -- of trying to avoid poles on a busy street with a three-month-old strapped to his chest, of panicked moments, uncertain if his toddler was missing or asleep -- is funny, poignant, and illuminating.

Ideal book to have at the office for mini-breaks on a sunny day:

Greedy Little Eyes by Billie Livingston (Vintage Canada)

The characters in this collection of short stories are a disparate bunch who have in common a dark sense of humour and dysfunctional family histories. Livingston's style makes the reader seem like a voyeur to the significant moments in their lives, a fly on the wall (of a café on Hastings, a rustic island cabin, a downtown office, the Pickton pig farm). The fleeting scenes end abruptly and with uncertainty, leaving the reader with lingering emotions that require time to contemplate before moving on to the next tale.

Perfect for your teacher friend who actually misses the classroom come August:

The Master of Happy Endings by Jack Hodgins (Thomas Allen)

Still mourning his beautiful wife years after her death, retired teacher Axel Thorstadt figures death will eventually find him, in true hermit style, alone in his Gulf Island cabin. But frightened at the thought that insanity will come knocking first, he decides to inject some purpose in his life by returning to the profession he's always loved. A simple ad in the newspaper leads to a tutoring gig with a wealthy Victoria family, which leads to a trip to L.A., which leads to the discovery of long-lost loves and hidden family secrets. Thorstadt takes it all in stride, embodying the notion that one is never too old to teach and be taught.

The book to have in your lap when you're stuck in traffic on the Lions Gate Bridge:

Vancouver Then and Now by Francis Mansbridge (Thunder Bay Press)

Look to your right and try to spot what's left of Lumberman's Arch poking out from Stanley Park's cedared shores, and then look down at this Vancouver picture book and see the original neo-classical mini-parthenon, "each pillar made from a different species of conifer, including Douglas fir, spruce, red cedar, yellow cedar, hemlock, and tamarack." Look further west and see the solid brick Waterfront Station, where the Skytrain meets the Seabus and the WestCoast Express, and then look down at page 30 and wonder at the old chateau-style CPR building that acted as the pivot between railway and trans-oceanic ships. Facing pages in this delicious book show Vancouver landmarks, as the title says, then and now... Whoops, your fellow weekenders are honking. Better get moving and save for later the picture of an empty Lions Gate bridge on page 70.

For those post-print kids you're visiting south of the border:

A People's History of American Empire by Howard Zinn, Mike Konopacki and Paul Buhle

A graphic history/autobiography that shows U.S. history in black and white and shades of grey.

What to read strung out with your friends at their celebrity parents' mansion pool:

Imperial Bedrooms by Bret Easton Ellis (Knopf)

This new novel by Bret Easton Ellis, his first in five years, is one of the summer's most anticipated literary events. Author of the generation-defining Less Than Zero, published in 1985 when Ellis was just 21, and the controversial American Psycho, one of the last novels to truly shock a North American audience, Ellis is the poet laureate of the Los Angeles elite, a minimal moralist of Hollywood decadence. His hyper-minimal prose reflects the vacancy and inattentiveness of the sexy, rich, strung-out and bored. Ellis' genius resides not in offering feeling to his readers, but in removing feeling from them, as if with a vacuum. In Imperial Bedrooms, Ellis revists the cast of Less Than Zero 25 years later. No critical consensus has yet emerged on this bizarre sequel, but surely no new novel will better capture the mood of these empty summer days, as you recline with your third (or is it fourth?) stiff drink by the clear blue mansion pool, and realise how easy it would be to disappear here.

Something to browse amidst the milling crowd at your local block party (or maybe a raucous protest):

Rites of Way: The Politics and Poetics of Public Space edited by Mark Kingwell and Patrick Turmel (Wilfred Laurier University Press)

Planning wonks, citizen anthropologists and anyone who has sipped a coffee in a European plaza and wondered why their B.C. town can't muster a similar experience will enjoy this collection of smart essays assembled by a couple of populist philosophers. An especially good one is "Take to the Streets! Why We Need Street Festivals to Know Ourselves" by Shawn Micallef.

For an icy respite during a heat wave:

This Vanishing Land: A Woman's Journey to the Canadian Arctic by Dianne Wheelan (Caitlin Press)

When Canadian forces set forth during the Arctic winter to plant a flag at the northernmost point in Canada, Dianne Whelan went along for the adventure. Her vivid writing and photographs form a polished scrapbook crammed with insights about glaciers, expedition logistics, sovereignty claims and the Inuit who have mastered the high Arctic. On a sweltering August day, this is like opening up your freezer, sticking in your head, and lingering lusciously before grabbing the ice cream.

What to tuck under your arm on the way to the Gay Pride parade:

The Canadian War on Queers: National Security as Sexual Regulation by Gary Kinsman and Patrizia Gentile (UBC Press)

This book is heavy in more ways than one, 554 definitive pages on how the Canadian government spied upon, interrogated and just plain made hell the lives of gay people from the Cold War until the late 1990s. Next time you are rolling your eyes at the homophobia in the U.S. and elsewhere beyond our borders, you'll need to take into account this meticulously researched and presented social history of good Canadians -- diplomats, soldiers, everyday citizens -- targeted by their own government just because of who they loved.

Research before planning that high stakes road trip with your beloved:

The Best Places to Kiss in the Northwest by Teri Citterman (Sasquatch Books)

Wanting to seal the deal in the perfect setting? Here's the lowdown on the most romantic lodgings, restaurants, beaches, sunsets and scenic drives from Oregon to the top of British Columbia. A couple of days in the car with your prospective soul mate can be bliss -- or relationship suicide if badly executed. Read up before going for it. Otherwise, it's going to be a long, lonely winter.

Best book to read on the plane (especially if it's an Airbus):

The Truth Shows Up by Harvey Cashore (Key Porter Books)

The subtitle of this full-bodied investigative work is "A reporter's 15-year odyssey tracking down the truth about Mulroney, Schreiber and the Airbus scandal." Despite so many years in the making, and two lawsuits survived, Cashore, a senior producer for CBC's Fifth Estate, is right on time with his first-person account. Just a few weeks ago, Schreiber was locked up in a German jail while Ottawa flailed Mulroney with the Oliphant report. It's the scandal that keeps coughing up headlines.

Keep this handy for that Sunday evening car crawl on the Trans-Canada:

Private Grief, Public Mourning: The Rise of the Roadside Shrine in B.C. by John Belshaw & Diane Purvey (Anvil Press)

You've seen them dotting the sides of highways -- small crosses, sometimes with flowers, pictures, balloons, teddy bears. Public grief, spontaneous, genuine and relatively new. A symptom of the way our highways and speed-addicted culture invented new ways to die? A sign that the formal griving ceremonies of organized religions are losing their power as they lose disciples? These are the questions the authors grapple with in this historical investigation of roadside death memorials in British Columbia.

Stow this aboard your kayak before paddling the Haida Gwaii:

Boat Camping Haida Gwaii: A Small-Vessel Guide by Neil Frazer (Harbour Publishing)

Frazer's indispensible guide to the raggedy Haida Gwaii coastline includes maps, photos, field tested routes, campground descriptions and advice on tides, currents and escaping the clutches of bears.

But if you run into Guujaaw on Haida Gwaii, hide this book:

All That We Say Is Ours: Guujaaw and the Reawakening of the Haida Nation by Ian Gill (D&M Publishers)

B.C.'s Haida people have pressed hard to gain control over their own resources and political fate, causing author Ian Gill to observe: "I simply don't know of any other First Nation that is prepared to offer such a provocative challenge to the status quo, and to do so in a way that is constructive but utterly unyielding at the same time." Guujaaw is the shrewd Haida leader at the centre of that revolution. He doesn't approve of Gill's book, but the author, a former journalist who runs the conservation economy non-profit EcoTrust, gives a thorough and engaging account that doesn't smack of bias. (A Tyee interview Gill is here.)

And refer to this when you look up from your map of Haida Gwaii and wonder: Who the hell was Queen Charlotte, anyway?

The Encyclopedia of Raincoast Place Names by Andrew Scott (Harbour Publishing)

The British name for the islands was after Duchess Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz of Germany who married King George III who sponsored the fur trading trip of George Dixon who named his ship the Queen Charlotte and also the islands that already had the name Xaadal Swayee, meaning islands on the boundary betrween worlds -- "the worlds being those of forest, sea and sky," a slightly more apt name than that from a woman who used to hang with Mozart and Bach. But I suppose that's how power works. Another tidbit: Siwash Rock in Vancouver's Stanley Park is the Chinook word for a First Nations person and is a modification of the French word, "sauvage." According to Scott, "despite its similarity to the English word 'savage,' [it] simply means 'wild' or 'untamed.' It was originally a neutral term, synonymous with 'local,' but as racist attitudes persisted and grew over the years, the word became derogatory, a sign of contempt."

For the vacationer who really wants to get away from it all:

Atlin's Gold by Peter Steele (Caitlin Press)

An affectionate and informative blend of family and regional history by a Yukon doctor who found B.C.'s last gold-rush town as agreeably exotic as Patagonia and Bhutan.

To keep with you while returning to the place of your ancestors:

The Year of Finding Memory by Judy Fong Bates (Random House Canada)

What a gift to be able to join Fong Bates on her mystery-infused explorations of China, the land of her parents who raised her a Canadian through and through. This memoir will resonate with anyone descended from immigrants and curious to know the emotional sacrifices they made to be here. The writing is clear and honest and full of the sights, smells and social realities of China, a daughter's own gift to her laundry worker father and the mother she never really knew.

What to read if you've stopped believing you might yet dig up a sea monster's bones at the beach:

Curiosity by Joan Thomas (McClelland and Stewart) and Darwin's Bastards edited by Zsuzsi Gartner (D&M Publishers)

What this admittedly loose pairing of fiction offerings have in common is great prose and the spectre of Charles Darwin hovering over it all. Thomas's love story brilliantly explores the Victorian era's rigid system of class and gender discrimination. The novel is based on the actual life of a cabinet maker's daughter, Mary Anning, who at age 12, 40 years before the publishing of The Origin of Species, discovered fossils along Britain's shoreline cliffs and without due credit went on to help pioneer paleontology. Gartner has collected some rare artifacts, too, a bunch of weird stories by virtuoso writers including Douglas Coupland and William Gibson, homages to the pulpy, dystopian sci-fi genre. Curiosity is layered, moving. Darwin's Bastards is hilarious and wild. Pack both for the shore!

What to read between arguments about who the Canucks gotta trade:

Gretzky's Tears by Stephen Brunt (Knopf Canada)

Brunt's account of The Trade shows Gretzky as a full and active participant not just in the trade (after it was set in motion by Peter Pocklington) but in the biggest hockey deal of all -- expansion into the southern U.S. and that Holy Grail of North American hockey -- the elusive network TV contract. While Walter may have taught a young Wayne hockey on a backyard rink, Brunt shows how his surrogate fathers -- Nelson Skalbania, Pocklington and Bruce McNall, the Gordon Geckos of the hockey world -- taught him the art of the deal.

For your brother who hates his summer job at the gas station:

Crude World: The Violent Twilight of Oil by Peter Maass (Knopf)

How the industry pollutes everything it touches, including the Amazon, the Middle East, and countless politicians.

What to read on the hottest day ever:

Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway (Penguin Canada)

This book amply delivers on what it promises in its subtitle: "How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming." Which means it's the latest in a growing genre exposing the humanity-killing nexus of sociopathic public relations flaks, malevolent mondo-rich moguls, and those supposed men and women of science who either don't or won't understand three simple words: conflict of interest. Goes right there on the shelf next to James Hoggan's whistle blower on his own PR industry, Climate Cover-up: The Crusade to Deny Global Warming.

What else to read on the hottest day ever:

Carbon Shift: How the Twin Crises of Oil Depletion and Climate Change Will Define the Future by Thomas Homer-Dixon et al (Random House Canada)

The good news, according to the six essays presented in this surprisingly readable collection, is that there's enough carbon-based fuel left on this planet to continue our pedal-to-the-metal way of life for another 200 to 800 years. The bad news is that if we do so --- and our political history suggests we will --- we'll render this planet uninhabitable for sensitive mammals such as ourselves. Divergent arguments by experts such as David Keith, Jeff Rubin, and Mark Jaccard combine to form an unforgettable impression: Forget peak oil; fear peak climate.

Best book to read during the sweaty night you're losing sleep as a result of having read Carbon Shift:

Seven Rules for Sustainable Communities: Design Strategies for the Post-Carbon World, by Patrick M. Condon (Island Press)

North American cities will require dramatic retrofits if they are to survive the twin crises of oil depletion and climate change. UBC professor Patrick Condon offers a list of well-researched guidelines for a local carbon shift. What sets Condon's chatty workbook apart from the lofty tomes penned by so many other architects and planners is his instinct for the practical. Condon eschews green skyscrapers and carbon-free monorails for solutions that will look deceptively familiar to Vancouverites (not to mention Tyee readers): restore the streetcar city; design an interconnected street system; locate commercial services, frequent transit and schools within a five-minute walk; locate good jobs close to affordable homes; provide a diversity of housing types; create a linked system of natural areas and parks; invest in lighter, greener, cheaper and smarter infrastructure.

What to read on a walking tour of Vancouver:

The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis by Aaron Peck (Pedlar Press)

This debut novel by Vancouver writer Aaron Peck is presented as a manuscript by Bernard Willis, a vanished archivist, which has been discovered and reorganized by anonymous Editors. Just as the reader will need to extract a version of "the truth" from this dubiously compromised text, so Willis's manuscript excavates fresh meaning from the familiar landmarks of Vancouver and other North American cities. Peck's prose channels that of deceased German writer W.G. Sebald, whose logs of walking tours tread the tightrope between novel and essay, but Bernard Willis departs from its influences toward a style distinctly localized and so deeply personal. The novel is a bewildering spiral of deviations, tangents, asides, which together describe, as dust describes the tornado, how humans prop up cities on the shifting earth of history.

What to read as the first signs of autumn appear and you can't face another year of the same old same old:

The New Entrepreneurs: Building a Green Economy for the Future by Andrew Heintzman (House of Anansi Press) and On Gandhi's Path: Bob Swann's Work for Peace and Community Economics by Stephanie Mills (New Society Publishers)

Venture capitalist Heintzman profiles the get-rich-ethically schemes of "new entrepreneurs" in the fields of forestry, water, energy, agriculture -- even two guys from Ontario who invented the next generation of plug-in electric hybrid car in their garage. If those capitalist-lite yarns don't inspire, perhaps you'd prefer Mills' chronicle of Bob Swann's life as a jailed U.S. war resistor, non-violent campaigner against racism, and promoter of decentralized, equitable economies. He co-founded the E.F. Schumacher Society based on the principles of the author of Small is Beautiful, so it's only appropriate this book is slim, with teeny type.

Perfect antidote to romantic notions of starting a hippy farming commune:

Trauma Farm by Brian Brett (D&M Publishers)

We've mentioned Brett's book before, but it's a good reminder of how our mixed farmers are getting financially and ecologically screwed by agribusiness. A poet and journalist, Brett has worked his small mixed farm on Salt Spring Island for years and never made a profit, but his persistence and unconventionally romantic rhapsodies on the egg, naked skulking about a twilight forest, and tender defence of chicken manure do give us a little bit to feel optimistic about. You can bet the farm Brett's a good read -- the farm's really not worth that much anyway.

For your visiting retired parents complaining about getting old:

The Making of an Elder Culture by Theodore Roszak (New Society Publishers)

Now that they've got time and their Canada Pension, they can launch the revolution at last.  [Tyee]

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