Looking for a good read?

Now that summer is officially underway, you are probably looking forward to some well-earned time off soon – and you might want a good book or two to keep you company. Here are some interesting possibilities for you to consider, courtesy of McGill alums who have published in recent months.

Story by McGill News

June 2022

We are now past the midway point for June – and that means the official start of summer is just around the corner. Whether you’ll be spending time in the backyard or at the beach, in a park or on a plane to somewhere exciting, chances are you’ll want a good book or two to keep you company.

We have a few suggestions.

Several McGill alums have recently published books that you might want to consider for your summer reading options. Here’s the lowdown on a few of them.

Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA 

by Tim Mak, BA’09

Tim Mak’s recent book Misfire: Inside the Downfall of the NRA combines careful documentation and lively reporting as it takes a probing – and, sadly, timely – look at the National Rifle Association, one of the most potent lobbying organizations in the U.S.

Misfire pulls back the curtain on the influential firearms organization which began simply as a 19th century marksmanship group for soldiers, subsequently became a friendly club for hobbyist gun owners, and only later morphed into today’s extreme right wing lobbying powerhouse. The book is a compelling examination of fiscal and moral corruption within the organization’s leadership, and of the NRA’s continuing – and largely successful – efforts to thwart attempts at gun reform in the U.S.

Mak introduces readers to Wayne LaPierre, the NRA’s longtime leader, and to his wife Susan, a significant behind-the-scenes player. In exquisite detail and with both terrifying and amusing anecdotes, Mak describes the troubling ways in which NRA insiders may have raided the organization’s coffers to lead gilded lifestyles.

For those who have the stomach to engage with America’s gun violence, Mak describes multiple mass shooting incidents and outlines the NRA’s calculated response to each. In fact, Mak illuminates the organization’s extraordinary ability to use the shootings to its own advantage.

Misfire is a treasure chest of intrigues for political junkies and spy aficionados. Mak, the NPR reporter who broke the story about Russian operative Maria Butina’s infiltration of the NRA, helps readers connect the dots between the NRA’s links to Russia and Butina’s efforts to influence the Trump team’s positions on Russia.

While the NRA and LaPierre himself are currently reeling from multiple lawsuits, investigations, and internal strife, Mak concludes that millions of passionate gun owners in the U.S. will ensure that the gun rights movement will survive – with or without the NRA.

Judith Ritter, MA’72

The Swells

by Will Aitken, MA’75

Welcome aboard the fictional Emerald Tranquility, a cruise liner that’s about to set sail on the high seas. Reputed to be the most luxurious ship in the world, it’s occupied by the wealthy passengers who swan its top decks and the overlooked service staff who cater to their every need.

Then there’s Briony – a travel writer for a glossy magazine. She’s getting a free stay aboard the ship as a work perk, but has no salary to speak of and no other place to call home. Which leaves her caught in the middle when this pleasure cruise turns into a very bumpy ride.

With swift pacing and a never-ending cast of colourful characters, The Swells will keep you on your toes. Briony’s fellow passengers include Mimi, the ship’s overzealous PR flack; Little Buddha, a spiritual guru with dubious credentials; Teenah, Briony’s ex-lover; and Mrs. Moore, a mysterious voyager with unknown ambitions. The ship’s misadventures involve a kidnapping, an earthquake, a typhoon, a mutiny, and a pirate attack – with queer romance and throwaway gags thrown in for good measure.

Briony bears witness to it all – simultaneously horrified by the ship’s class divide while indulging in its privileges. Although she initially avoids choosing sides in favour of going along for the ride, she eventually reaches her moral limit, and has no choice but to rock the boat.

Stephanie Wereley

Scoundrel: How a Convicted Murderer Persuaded the Women Who Loved Him, the Conservative Establishment, and the Courts to Set Him Free

by Sarah Weinman, BSc’00

In her latest true-crime book Scoundrel, author Sarah Weinman, the crime books columnist for The New York Times, reminds us that sometimes truth can be stranger than fiction.

In 1957, Edgar Smith, a shiftless former Marine with anger issues, was convicted of the brutal murder of 15-year-old Victoria Zelinski. While on death row, awaiting a meeting with his maker, Smith forged an unlikely friendship with William F. Buckley, Jr., the founder of National Review, and one of the most influential figures in the U.S. neo-conservative movement.

Told in riveting detail and including excerpts from the nearly 2,000 pages of correspondence between these improbable friends, Scoundrel recounts how Buckley became convinced of Smith’s innocence and took on his case: writing articles, fundraising and hiring lawyers to fight for a new trial.

Buckley also enlisted the help of Sophie Wilkins, a book editor at Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, who helped Smith publish his first book Brief Against Death. Wilkins and Smith became romantically involved (through letters) and she also championed his cause.

Thanks to their advocacy, Edgar Smith eventually gained his freedom in 1971, becoming a bestselling author, an expert on prison reform, and a minor celebrity, until he once again gave in to his murderous impulses and landed back in the slammer – this time for life.

Weinman, who studied at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice after graduating from McGill, offers a vivid portrait of Smith in all his menacing complexity. And just when we think we know the full extent of his evil, Weinman gives us one chilling detail at the end.

Linda Sutherland

Animal Person

by Alexander MacLeod, BA’03

The sentences in Alexander MacLeod’s latest collection of stories, Animal Person, are the kind you can read once and savour, or reread for extra rewards. For instance, in “Lagomorph”, which won the prestigious O. Henry Award, a “sturdy old garden rake with its rectangular grin of sharp tines” soon becomes a weapon.

MacLeod, a Giller Prize finalist in 2010 for Light Lifting, his first book of short stories, doesn’t shy away from devastating outcomes. It isn’t all sad – at other times, whimsical things transpire and MacLeod manages to make them life-affirming rather than corny.

The stories are often set, at least partially, in the Maritime provinces where MacLeod grew up and lives (his late father, Alistair MacLeod, is celebrated for bringing Cape Breton and its inhabitants to life in his short stories and novels).

Animal Person offers an impressive variety from one story to the next and the people who populate his stories feel unique and believable. MacLeod showcases his craft – and diligence – with characters and narrators that range from a modern-day North American dad to various children to a peeping Tom and even a piece of music.

He deftly conveys the sudden shifts in life. One day we are one thing, the next we are another. He highlights the puzzle of human motivation – moments where we face the choice of making a potentially life-changing shift in direction, and then either do or don’t.

Readers will be torn between pacing themselves to make the volume last or galloping ahead through the deftly crafted sentences that carry them to interesting situations, humorous moments, and subtle truths. The last words in “The Entertainer,” his story about an unlikely duet, conveys my overall feeling when reading the collection: “‘Again,’ he says, and ‘again.’”

Vanessa Bonneau

This Is Your Captain Speaking: Stories from the Flight Deck

by Captain Doug Morris, DipMeteorology’84

If you wonder about the ins-and-outs of air travel when you’re on a plane – and who hasn’t – commercial pilot Doug Morris has probably answered every question that’s crossed your mind in his latest book, This Is Your Captain Speaking: Stories from the Flight Deck.

The aviation details in his fourth book will also be helpful for skittish flyers, according to Morris. They may be tempted to skip the ‘Do pilots take naps?’ section but fear not! “Controlled” short naps or rests are allowed during the cruise phase with a checklist in place, Morris writes, and long-haul flights have an additional pilot or two. He reminds readers that no other form of travel, including walking, “approaches the modern jetliner in safety.”

Morris studied meteorology at McGill and worked as a forecaster at Environment Canada before becoming a pilot. He currently flies a 298-passenger Boeing 787 “for an airline with a maple leaf emblazoned on its fuselage” and pens a long-running aviation column for its in-flight magazine.

Morris aims to “fill the void of aviation knowledge by enlightening a wide spectrum of readers.”

He describes the entire flight experience, including the “walk-around” visual inspection before every flight. He devotes several pages to turbulence, the most common passenger concern. If you know where to look, Morris writes, night flights offer even more spectacular sights than during the day, from Venus and the Moon to an occasional glimpse of the northern lights. “Another advantage to night flight is the smoothness of air.”

The book is rife with interesting insights into a pilot’s job, flying, airports (Las Vegas is his favourite city to land in at night because of its neon amusement park feel), as well as arcane information (“how are toilets serviced?”) that will appeal to seasoned and occasional air travellers alike.

Brenda Branswell

The School of Mirrors

by Eva Stachniak, PhD’88

In her last book of historical fiction, the international bestseller The Winter Palace, Eva Stachniak fashioned a tale of palace intrigue that focused on the rise of Catherine the Great in Russia. In her new novel, Stachniak takes on a different chateau: 18th-century Versailles.

Aptly titled The School of Mirrors, Stachniak’s book plays with many different kinds of reflections, including how we view ourselves and those around us, the legacies of powerful figures, and the nation as remembered in history.

Set in France mere decades before the revolution of 1789, The School of Mirrors begins when Véronique, the eldest child of an avaricious mother, is sold to a scout grooming young mistresses for Louis XV. The unsavory relationship that follows between the king, posing as a Polish count, and Véronique triggers a compelling tale of two generations of women and a nation marked by birth, death, and (r)evolution.

The School of Mirrors evokes the human struggle to find balance amidst opposing forces, especially of life and death and beginnings and endings. But it also offers the possibility of solace in accepting these absolutes as a continuum. The book closes, “In the end, there is no end, just another beginning. Still blurry and blissfully unaware of its own origins, of everything that had happened before it was born.” What is born, is hope.

Katie Mullen

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