Thursday, December 29, 2011

Best of 2011

I realize this may seem like a cop-out (especially after I took last week off for the holidays), but rather than post a recommendation today I offer you my top 5 books of 2011, plus a few I read this year that were published earlier. There are lots of year-end lists going up right now, and my usual year in review post will go up on New Year's Day (or thereabouts) as it always does. 

I thought about doing this last week as a last-minute gift guide, but decided instead to wait so it could be a list of books to enjoy in the New Year rather than a stress-inducing buybuybuy reminder. Anyway, here are my Top-5 books that came out in 2011 (please bear in mind that I have not read all the big books of the year yet – my to-read pile is not empty) – links go to the full review, in case you missed it the first time around.

1. The Sister's Brothers by Patrick deWitt (House of Anansi Press)
What can I say about this book that I didn't already say? When I read it, I had no idea I was going to enjoy it so much. Cowboys? I thought, I'm not sure about this. Then of course I realized it wasn't really about cowboys, but instead a vision of the Old West that is just as wild and funny and violent as I could ever have wished, told through a voice so distinct I can still hear Eli Sisters rattling around in my head complaining about his horse. If you have been avoiding this book because of the hype, I suggest you let it cool off and pick it up in February or something – it is really and truly not to be missed.

2. The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright (McClelland & Stewart)
In the interest of fair warning, if you're in a relationship beware the power of Enright's writing. I'm not saying this book will make you cheat, but the Gina's voice is so consuming I'll admit it stressed me out a lot. Written as a kind of confessional about an affair, The Forgotten Waltz is a love story that picks apart relationships and love and feels very much like a conversation with an over-analyzing (but perhaps not very self-aware) good friend. It's honest, beautiful, and deeply moving, and even though it made me think all kinds of crazy things, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it.

3. Various Positions by Martha Schabas (Doubleday)
A lot of people seem to search "ballet sex" on Google, and a number of those people have found my blog (and my review of this book, specifically) with that search term. They don't usually stick around. Various Positions was one of the most surprising books of the year for me, because Schabas' treatment of physicality, femininity, control, and sexuality – all explored through ballet and the life of 14-year-old Georgia – were so stunning that I found myself captivated by the beauty of the writing and the darkly original story it told.

4. Midsummer Night at the Workhouse by Diana Athill (House of Anansi Press)
I love short stories, and this collection of Diana Athill's early stories felt like one of my great discoveries this year (I can't really take credit for it though, since it was sent as a review copy). This collection is mostly stories about women in their 20s, feeling their way into an adult life. The stories are all set in the 1950s and maybe the early 60s (as far as I can tell), but nonetheless resonate because of their humour, language, and incredibly distinct voices. I loved this book, and already its stories are on my re-read list.

5. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht (Random House)
I love a layered narrative, where stories fold into other stories getting put down and picked up as the larger plot progreses, and The Tiger's Wife is perhaps the best example of that I read all year. It's sad, beautiful, and filled with the kind of wonder that comes from hearing about the life of someone older than you. After the death of her grandfather, Natalia returns to the mythology he offered about his life as a way to deal with her grief and attempt to understand him better – the result is one of the rare books you hope will never end, but manages to leave you gracefully when it inevitably must.

I would also recommend The Little Shadows by Marina Endicott and Blue Nights by Joan Didion. 

I also read lots of books that weren't new releases, so here were some of my favourites (not all of which I wrote about):

1. Storyteller: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock
2. Come, Thou Tortoise by Jessica Grant
3. The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (I actually managed to read all the books so-far released in this series in the last year – they were excellent)
4. Nikolski by Nicholas Dickner
5. Holding Still For As Long As Possible by Zoe Whittall

Thursday, December 15, 2011

No Great Mischief

I wrote the other day about all the books I hadn't read. Some books, like the classics, I'm actively aware of not having read: I know their general stories, but have not yet picked them up to see what they're all about for myself. Other books, though, I have no idea I haven't read because I just didn't know about them. Although this means I'm probably missing out on a great many incredible books, it also means that I get the wonderful surprise of coming across them with no expectations or preconceived plot ideas, allowing me to enjoy an old book as though it were brand new. How I managed to so completely miss No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod I don't know, but I'm certainly glad it caught up with me eventually.

No Great Mischief is, on the surface, the story of the narrator, Alexander MacDonald (one of many in his family), a man who, as a boy, was so accustomed to being called 'ille bhig ruaidh (Gaelic for little red-haired boy) that he did know know his own name. That tendency to name-as-description seems to have followed him, because it's hard to think of him as anyone but "the narrator" – practically nameless. Anyhow, as the novel opens, he is driving to Toronto to find his brother, an alcoholic living in the kind of seedy, dirty rooms that men with no money and few standards find to rent until their money runs out. When he arrives, he finds his brother shaking without a drink and hand him the bottle of brandy he's brought for just such an event. After calming his brother's tremors, he sets out to the LCBO for something that will last a little longer. Before the question of why he would facilitate his brother's alcoholism even blooms in your mind, though, he begins to tell you about his family, the Clann Chalum Ruaidh.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Unread

In the last few weeks, newspapers and magazines have been unrolling their "best of the year" book lists, and I am once again realizing that I have only managed to read a handful of them. Certainly I've read about many of the books, and I've read some of them, but every trip to a bookstore reminds me of all the books I've been wanting to read and have not yet gotten to. For new releases, I don't feel too bad, but when I spot a book on a shelf (such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot) that I've been meaning to read since before this time last year, I start to feel a pang of guilt. Were there books I read this year that I should have put aside in favour of these other books I've been looking forward to? (The answer is definitely yes, but when reading is part of your job, you sometimes read books you otherwise would not.)

I've saved 1Q84, Haruki Murakami's latest, for the holidays, but it's so big (and the holidays so inevitably full of non-reading activities) that I probably won't get through the other books I had planned to read. 

Over at the National Post, this trouble of The Unread has become an on-going series, started by books editor Mark Medley coming clean about some of the classics (traditional and modern) that he has not yet read. Certainly, I've read many classics. I've read The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, all the Anne of Green Gables books, 1984 and Animal Farm, The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises, among many others. But, like Mark, I have not read Moby-Dick or The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series (despite having all three volumes on my shelf and having read Stieg Larsson's widow's book). I also bought the first Hunger Games book in the spring and have yet to crack the cover. Until last year, I hadn't read any of Margaret Atwood's novels (I've since read three); I still haven't read Watership Down or Brave New World, and I managed to get an English degree without reading any T.S. Eliot, Jane Austen, or myriad other big and influential authors. Despite having bought a book of Chekov short stories almost eight months ago now, I still have not read any of the Russians. And, although these are all books and authors I'd like to get to, there are a bunch of recent releases I'd also like to read.

For some reason, it seems easier to put off reading classics. Likely, it has something to do with the sense that they've always been around, so it won't hurt to wait a little, whereas new releases sometimes feel so of the moment, waiting seems impossible. Partly too, many of the classic stories are so classic I feel I know them already. Of course, knowing the story of Wuthering Heights isn't the same as immersing yourself in the language and drama of the novel, but nonetheless, there is less urgency there.

 Miraculously, I managed to read all five of the books I set out to read this year, so perhaps next year I'll  as a classic to the list and see if that helps. In the meantime, what are the unread books that weigh most heavily on you? Will you try to read one over the holidays?

Friday, December 9, 2011

Blue Nights

Through no kind of strategy or planning, it seems I have read more memoirs and biographies in the last month or so than in the rest of the year combined. I could probably dig into this and find some sort of psychological reason (you can always find one if you look), but I would prefer to chalk it up to my to-read pile having its own logical sieve (the tiger posts, for example). Including one book that I have not yet written about, in the last month I have had the great privilege to spend time with some extraordinarily different women – first, Mrs. Delany and Molly Peacock in The Paper Garden, then writer Therese Kishkan in her memoir Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, and capping it all off, Joan Didion in Blue Nights, her follow-up to The Year of Magical Thinking.

Where The Year of Magical Thinking focused on the death of Didion's husband John Gregory Dunne and the devastating illness of their adult daughter Quintana Roo. Shortly before that book was published, Quintana died. Blue Nights is Didion's lyrical attempt to deal with her daughter's death – and to some degree her life – and also with her own mortality and aging in the face of her family's death. If readers found Didion cold or clinical in A Year of Magical Thinking, mere pages into Blue Nights you can tell that this is a different Didion: her defences are down, her own fragility is realized, and her world is filled with memories of the people she thought she would have forever. To say this book is devastating does not come close to grasping its emotional impact, but it also implies that there are no moments of joy, which would be unfair.

Monday, December 5, 2011

On book blogging

A few days ago, Rebecca Schinsky (an American book blogger and very activer Twitterer) tweeted about a letter she and other book bloggers received from HarperCollins U.S. imprint William Morrow that stated a change in their policy regarding review copies. Essentially, the letter (as discussed in the L.A. Times and The Guardian) laid down the law: no more unsolicited review copies; reviews are expected to be written and posted in a timely manner (within weeks of publication); and if bloggers won't play by these rules, no more review copies. But! William Morrow loves book bloggers, the letter assures recipients. So no worries.

Certainly, this letter may not have been worded to the greatest affect, and it seems William Morrow was taken aback by the angry response the missive received and has since tried to explain that the change in policy isn't meant to be punitive. Be that as it may, the wider response has been interesting. On the one side, bloggers are angry at being treated like free marketing labour – most don't get paid and look at free books as a way to help justify a sometimes very time-consuming endeavour; on the other side are those who see this letter and its response as further evidence of the entitlement of the blogosphere – hacks who think they're real journalists and should be treated accordingly. It's messy and ugly, and I'm not sure either side has it right, but rather than wade into the wider debate, I'll simply explain how it all works here.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Tiger's Wife

I mentioned last week in my post about John Vaillant's The Tiger that every so often this (assumably) unintentional trends arise in literature, and that last year's was exotic animals, and especially tigers. Although I didn't read any of the tiger books when they were first out, I still managed to read two back to back almost a year later. You would think this would be tiger overload (I would have thought that if I'd planned things better), but instead it turned out that reading the detailed nonfiction account first meant I entered the The Tiger's Wife with a wealth of knowledge (both on a practical, biological level and on the folk tale, mythology level) that allowed me to sink in to Téa Obreht's novel with a kind of backstory already in place.

The Tiger's Wife is set in an unnamed Balkan country in the years after the war. People are still adjusting to the new countries and the new borders that accompany them. The novel is not really about that, though, so much as that is the condition of life for the characters. The novel opens with a memory: a little girl is taken by her grandfather to the zoo, where they sit and watch the tiger roam the moat (the zoo is in an old citadel). The little girl is Natalia, who in the present day of the novel is a young doctor driving to a much poorer, neighbouring country with her best friend (also a doctor) to administer vaccines to children in an orphanage run by a priest. She is driving to the orphanage when she finds out her grandfather (who was also a doctor) has died in some out of the way town, and that his belongings were not returned with his body. Her grandfather, Natalia is quite sure, was going to find the deathless man; her grandmother insists he was on his way to help her with the orphanage. 

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