My Reading Week

Last week I took a personal reading week, and read three very different books, enjoying them all.

Suzanne Simard, Finding the Mother Tree

Simard’s book is an intellectual autobiography, comparable to Sherry Turkle’s The Empathy Diaries, which I recently reviewed. Simard is a key figure in a paradigm shift in our understanding of forests, seeing them as consisting of trees and plants that share, rather than compete for, resources and communicate through underground fungal networks. This paradigm is controversial, because it advocates selective logging and maintaining forests of multiple species rather than clear-cutting and replanting single species. Simard began her career in the British Columbia Forest Service, but the results of her research put her at loggerheads with the organization’s traditional practices. For the sake of her science and her sanity, she moved to the UBC Forestry Faculty.

In addition to her struggles with the forest industry and the challenges of starting an academic career while parenting young children, Simard presents a dramatic life story, including the accidental death of a sibling, a commuter marriage and eventual divorce, and a battle with breast cancer – now in remission.

Simard takes her non-academic readership seriously enough to offer descriptions of the experiments that led her to the new paradigm. Unfortunately, the descriptions are always expressed in sentences and paragraphs. Including illustrations, charts, and tables would have made them easier to assimilate. Her TED talk, which has had 1.7 million views, contains the illustrations that the book lacks. While I recommend the TED talk as a brief and lucid explanation of her research, to understand the life in full you must read her book. And the book is a must-read.

Mary McAuliffe, Ph.D., Dawn of the Belle Epoque

McAuliffe is an American historian who specializes in Paris – nice work if you can get it. While her bio says she has taught at several universities, she is writing popular rather than academic history. (Paradoxically, academics writing for other academics never use the title Ph.D., but academics writing for the lay reader often do, thereby calling attention to their bona fides.) McAuliffe’s approach is to focus on the intellectual and cultural elite. In Belle Epoque Paris that includes a truly amazing roster: impressionist painters (Manet, Monet, Degas, Morisot), novelists (Hugo, Zola), composers (Debussy, Ravel, Saint-Saens), thespians (Bernhardt), sculptors (Rodin, Bartholdi), and visionary entrepreneurs (Eiffel, Ritz). McAuliffe explores the dense professional and social networks among these luminaries. She does not ignore political history, as she writes about the rising politician and eventual prime minister Clemenceau, who had close connections to the artistic elite, especially Monet. The book ends with the Dreyfuss Affair, in which Zola of course plays a major role. Working with such rich story material, McAuliffe produced a book that is well-written and intensely illuminating.

One of my retirement plans – now postponed – is to spend a month in Paris with my wife, with unhurried visits to the Musee d’Orsai, Giverny, Opera Garnier, and other spots frequented by the Belle Epoque elite. McAuliffe’s book is therefore an intellectual foretaste of this visit, and it certainly whetted my appetite.

Stephen King, Billy Summers

I’ve long been a fan of Stephen King, quickly devouring each year’s new novel. Billy Summers is a subgenre of noir, a story of a hit-man making “one last hit” before retiring. Hit-man Billy Summers is joined by a co-protagonist, a young woman whom he saves, befriends, and with misgivings takes as an accomplice. The book’s main theme is the grisly business of targeted killing, which brings its characters to visit numerous seedy locales in the American hinterland. But it is also about being a writer, the camouflage identity Summers assumes and then practices in earnest. King himself is a writer’s writer, having imaginatively written about crime and the supernatural for half a century, but not hiding a keen literary mind and deep awareness of other writers. So I appreciate both King’s talent for developing compelling plots and his awareness of the literary world. King hasn’t at all lost his ability to entertain and enthrall.


I’m glad I took the past week as a personal reading week. In the coming weeks I will be focusing on the federal election, in particular the major parties’ contending narratives.

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