What I’ve been Reading

Time to catch up and get in the habit of regular updates; after all it is a ‘log’. And I can say so much more here than I can on my new Facebook presence. Although it won’t be updated daily I’ll try to present some words and images about what’s what on a more regular basis. Along the way I’ll write about things cultural that I’ve encountered. Today: books.

I’m going to start with my trip to Vietnam and the small pile of books I took with me (an ebook reader would be so much lighter to pack!) And I’m going to rate the books on an entirely subjective scale of 1-1o. Maybe you’ll find something in this list that invites a read…

First up:

Buddhism for Dummies

I’ve had an interest in Buddhism ever since I read The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac when I was about 15. Jack’s alcoholism didn’t appeal to me but his adventures with real life characters Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg did. I just never got around to seriously looking into Buddhism until travelling to Vietnam, however. Or, more so, travelling to Laos and Cambodia, where Buddhism is much more evident. And for any new investigation a Dummies book is a great intro. While in Saigon I read Buddhism for Dummies a bit at a time. And, under its influence, I started meditating and doing a bit of yoga. All of which had some beneficial effects. Sue claims I’m much more relaxed now. It’s a process I’m working on. This book got me started and that’s all to the good. 9/10

On an entirely different note:

Charlie Wilson's War

My copy had a still from the movie on the cover. I’ve never seen the movie. My understanding is that this is a celebration of Senator Charlie Wilson (now deceased) and his promotion of resistance to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. Personally I was horrified at the way one politician can wield so much power and influence. Especially a man who was such a loose cannon. Basically he organized, with a little help from his friends (American, Israeli, Chinese, Pakistani, Egyptian… yeah, strange bedfellows), the flow of arms to the mujahideen which helped defeat the Evil Empire (a term used often in the book). Well, we all know where that influx of arms led… Sure, the already crumbling USSR retreated from Afghanistan. And the Afghani warlords turned on one another and their former allies, the Americans. This is why people study history: to avoid the mistakes of our ancestors (the English Empire had already suffered an ignominious defeat in Afghanistan). Charlie Wilson’s War is a good read, a real page turner. The insights into the CIA, American politics and foreign policy are dazzling. And all the more interesting for having read it while in Vietnam. Charlie Wilson was ashamed of the American defeat in Vietnam and was driven by the need for revenge against the USSR. Read it and weep. 8/10

This book, on the other hand, was totally inspiring in its humanism:

Cutting For Stone
Cutting For Stone

The narrator of this beautiful novel is a twin who describes his life, and the events surrounding it, while growing up in a clinic in Ethiopia. This is a book to savour and ponder. Rich in details and humanist philosophy it’s a window on a world now past. I carried this book with me whenever I went out for a meal and drank in it’s otherworldliness while in that other world of SE Asia. And it left a taste of hope for humanity, a hope slightly shrunken after reading Charlie Wilson’s War. 10/10

My next read delved into an almost familiar future:

year of the flood by margaret atwood
Year of the Flood

Last year I bought a used copy of The Blind Assassin in Hanoi. I thought I’d read it on the flight home as it’s such a fat book. However, it took me a while to get into it and I never finished it until I was home. Once into it I enjoyed the book and when I saw The Year of the Flood at Talisman Books I picked it up. I’m an Atwood fan (I know some people who are not). I haven’t read Oryx and Crake, her novel which precedes this one, and I don’t think it’s necessary in order to appreciate The Year of the Flood. Margaret Atwood’s dystopian futures are all too close to our current times. Corporate control, chemical dependence, social blindness and a withering environment. Fortunately it’s not all bleak. Although bad things happen people continue to bring light to a darkened world. And I loved the character of the beekeeper who talked to her bees (I may be visiting Blair and Cheryl’s bee workshop in the Similkameen next Spring as a result of reading this book). 9/10

Although I love the TV series I wasn’t quite as impressed by the first of the novels it’s based on:

dead until dark book cover
Dead Until Dark

Perhaps it’s because I watched the TV series before reading the book. Usually I find I like the book version better. In this case I found the novel slight and leaning towards the bodice-ripper romance novels. Although I finished the book (it’s not too long a read) I won’t be reading any more of the Southern Vampire series. I can hardly wait for True Blood to return however. I don’t watch a lot of TV but True Blood and Mad Men have my attention. 4/10

On the way home I bought Salman Rushdie’s The Enchantress of Florence; I still haven’t finished it and may not. I just can’t get into it. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the fantasy genre but this book just doesn’t do it for me. Enough said. If I start it again maybe I’ll have more to say.

Since I’ve been home I’ve read a few interesting books. First I finished a book I’d bought upon returning from Europe where I saw some of Andy Goldsworthy’s artworks:

Time by Andy Goldsworthy

I haven’t read any of his other books so can’t compare them, but I found Time to be enlightening. Goldsworthy describes the process of creating several of his environmental works in Canada, the US, France and Scotland. Although the works themselves are important the documentation, of the often ephemeral works, is also important. In this book there are series of images showing the evolution of various works, both the construction and frequent destruction. And reading his daily thoughts really captures the triumphs and failures plus the sheer physical hardships he sometimes endures in the name of art. If you see me lying on the road or a rock or the beach in the rain, making a rain shadow, it’s because of Andy Goldsworthy’s influence. 8/10

I’ve been visiting the Pender Library’s art section lately and have found some interesting books. Like most people I’m fascinated by the dark side: the criminal mind and its acts:

The Forger's Spell by Edward Dolnick
The Forger's Spell

The Forger’s Spell tells the tale of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch artist, largely unpopular until he started forging Vermeer paintings. Vermeer was not a prolific painter – only 36 of his paintings survive. Vermeer wasn’t popular until the 1800s. So when more of his paintings surfaced during the 1930s critics and curators were ecstatic. Although van Meergeren put a lot of effort into making convincing forgeries (even developing a paint formula that included Bakelite for the right look) he wasn’t a particularly good painter. Yet the experts bought into the subterfuge, they were so anxious to have more Vermeers. A fascinating aspect of the story is how Hermann Göring acquired one of the forgeries during the Nazi’s plundering of great  art during WWII. Göring actually bought the painting (who was  going to refuse Göring a bargain price). Eventually van Meegeren was caught, his forgeries exposed and many people were highly embarrassed by what they now saw as blatant forgeries (although a few put on a brave face and tried insisting they were real Vermeers). Now there’s even a market in van Meergeren forgeries! 7.5/10

Next I spotted another book with a Vermeer influence:

Vermeer's Hat by Timothy Brook
Vermeer's Hat

Perhaps this doesn’t really belong in the Art section; more the History section as it’s about world trade in the 17th century. Vermeer’s paintings, and his time/place, come into the story as ‘doors’ through which to glimpse the world at that time. A fascinating read the book describes the early years of world trade as the Dutch, English, Spanish and Portuguese circumnavigate the world, exploring and trading. Of course what everyone wanted was a route to China and its riches. Ahh, yes, China, today rapidly dominating world trade and whose economic might increasingly influences world affairs. I have a fondness for history. The minutiae, the turns of fate, that led us to where we are today. The lessons learned, or ignored. Although I sometimes found the threads of the connections wandering (sometimes they had little to do with Vermeer’s paintings) I enjoyed the insights into the beginnings of world trade. 8/10

And that’s what I’ve been reading these past few months. I’ll continue to post on interesting books I’ve read, although I’ll hopefully not wait quite so long and just incorporate the reviews and reflections as part of my ongoing journals. BTW I keep an omnibus edition of A.A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh stories and his poems next to the bed for philosophical pondering. Sometimes you just have to return to the classics.

Holy Smoke! or should I say… Holy Cow!

Holy Cow by Sarah MacDonald
Holy Cow

When I wrote this post I forgot to include Holy Cow. Then, a day later, I’m meditating in the morning, trying to clear my mind of all random thoughts, and out pops this book! How could I have forgotten it? It’s a great book. It’s well written, has lots of insights and most of all is funny (as the cover image indicates). Sarah MacDonald swore she would never return to India but when her husband, a news journalist, was posted there so she returned to the heat and haze. She’d had a career as a TV host in Oz but was footloose and fancy free in India. What to do? Observe and report! She writes about her home and the staff, her neighbourhood and, most of all, her travels. Often she’s seeking some sort, any sort, of enlightenment. And she finds all sorts. She’s respectful, but she also lances the pompous bubbleheads. She notes cultural differences and addresses issues such as the place of modern young women in a slow-to-change culture. It’s a journal of highs and lows, fun and frustration, nirvana and neverland. Highly recommended! (my copy is out on loan at the moment) 10/10


  1. Hi Kelly: It is interesting that I should have looked up your blog today even though I knew you were back home, and that you would have been writing about books. I subscribe to the Gulf Islands Driftwood for its entertainment value and I learned from it that a Salt Spring group has created BookClubBuddy.com where people can interact with writers and, I assume , other readers. It prompted a great opinion piece from a former bookstore owner and author, George Sipos, which you can read online on the Driftwood’s website. I am a volunteer librarian at the Pender Island Library and am on the book selection committee. I really enjoyed your comments on quite an eclectic selection of books. I have come across some really interesting ones in our library. I used to buy more books but can no longer afford it. Of course I can’t resist the urge at times and used books are great. also I’m fond of classics. I have not been able to read Margaret Atwood yet, although I admire her immensely. Anyway, I enjoyed your straightforward commentaries on your books. Cheers

  2. nice stuff…content galore…autobio of a yogi is a great book as stated above….re. buddhism-i’m partial to tibetan style and suggest reading anything by the late choygyam trungpa…glad to see people still reading books, cheers,rg

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