Top 5 Reads – Non-Fiction from the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival

I’ll cop to it: I think Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear was my number one, favourite book in the 2017 Vancouver Writers Festival. It was soothing, sensitive and uniting. It was about making art, and making time, and making friends with grief and loss. It was about becoming comfortable with uncomfortable things and we can all use some help with that.

The remainder of my top five non-fiction titles from the 2017 festival are:

Life on the Ground Floor: Letters from the Edge of Emergency Medicine – James Maskalyk
Out Standing in the Field – Sandra Perron
Dead Reckoning – Ken McGoogan
The Secret Life: Three True Stories of the Digital Age – Andrew O’Hagan.

These titles represent a broad range of subject matter. I’m glad to see I have some diversity of interest.

Let’s start with Life on the Ground Floor. I didn’t expect to like this. I have a weak stomach. Mention the word “broken” in association with any bone, and I cover my ears and start humming to myself so I can’t hear you. But Maskalyk’s book is so interesting, so human, so filled with a realistic look at the downfalls of medicine it’s hard to look away. My two biggest takeaways: I’m super lucky to live in a nation where healthcare is free and available; and people practicing emergency medicine in places like Africa are brave and heroic. They know they’re going to lose more people than they save, and they keep trying.

Out Standing in the Field — what’s so great about this is it’s a military memoir (which I have a soft spot for) about Canada’s first woman infantry officer. I think this commends it all on itself. How great and inspiring and also, really hard to read. The patriarchy is alive and well in the military. Perron was a brave and talented soldier and her story is incredible.

Ken McGoogan appeared in a Magentic Mysterious North, which I think was an aptly named event. There is something about the Canadian north that pulls a lot of people. Since childhood, I have been fascinated by tales of explorers and the terrain of the north. There were at least three books focussed on the Canadian north in the 2017 festival, but Dead Reckoning was by far my favourite in terms of spirit and comprehensiveness. McGoogan delves into the discovery of the Northwest Passage and John Franklin. I also read Ice Ghosts by Paul Watson, which provided a nice conclusion: the discovery of Franklin’s missing ships. It was a nice pair of bookends.

Journalism isn’t dying—the hard work is just being done in long books or on late night comedy shows. Current event and personality investigations are always intriguing, when they’re done well. In The Secret Life, Andrew O’Hagan skillfully teases out an unflattering portrait of Julian Assange (Wikileaks founder) and a bizarre profile of Craig Wright, the conclusions of which I’m still not sure about. Normally, I don’t find tech personalities that interesting but O’Hagan delves into the person behind the computer and offers a look at how computers and technology shape our personalities, behavior, and society as a whole.

And my bonus pick for this round: Fault Lines: Understanding the Power of Earthquakes by Johanna Wagstaffe. It’s for middle-schoolers but I found it informative, non-hysterical and reassuring in the face of disaster. Go buy an earthquake kit.

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