As ever, assembling a list like this one means leaving out a slew of excellent titles—especially in a good year for books, as 2010 was. Still, we can say plainly that the following 15 items did the most to capture our imagination and get us talking. So let’s not play at some impossible science by calling them the best. Let’s say instead that they’ve stuck with us the closest, and loom largest in our memory. Here they are, in no particular order.
The Death of Donna Whalen (By Michael Winter. Hamish Hamilton)
It’s labelled a novel on its cover, but this unsettling work is no ordinary piece of fiction. St. John’s–based author Michael Winter creates a narrative collage out of court testimony, police statements, wiretap transcripts, and interviews, all related to a 1993 murder that shook his hometown. Winter has changed the names of those involved and often converted the first-person into the third to streamline the account, but otherwise he’s left the voices unaltered, with all of their strange tics, slang, nuances, and reversals. Given no dates or leading descriptions, readers have to map out the events for themselves—often a difficult job in the verbal crosscurrents. Strangely, though, the effort required makes the tragedy all the more haunting. An expert blend of innovation and empathy.
Cleopatra: A Life (By Stacy Schiff. Little, Brown and Company)
Part-time Edmonton resident Stacy Schiff creates a hypnotic vision of the legendary Egyptian queen from the few brilliant threads of fact that have survived. That Schiff does so without resorting to flights of fancy—relying instead on vivid, historically grounded descriptions of life in ancient Alexandria and Rome wherever the biographical record is blank—is among the major achievements of this elegant book. Another is what she does with the countless fantasies that male writers have dreamed up over the centuries to fill the silence.
Ilustrado (By Miguel Syjuco. Hamish Hamilton)
Built from fictional excerpts of blog postings, biographies, novels, and essays, Ilustrado is one of those rare literary debuts that doesn’t let its technical ambition get in the way of saying something memorable and poignant through story and character. Montreal’s Miguel Syjuco mines his own childhood in the Philippines to produce a skillfully layered tale about a young writer whose obsession with his dead mentor drives him to confront the privileges of his social class, the nature of his tangled identity, and the costs of artistic failure.
Life (By Keith Richards. Little, Brown and Company)
Sure, there’s something faintly unfair about praising Keith Richards for a book when he’s already so famous for other things. And yes, Life is around a hundred pages too long, as proven by the details about house pets in the closing stages. But much to the credit of coauthor James Fox, this raspy-voiced autobiography transcends the whole as-told-to genre. What could have been an extended barroom-bullshit session full of junkie slapstick turns out to be a magnetic portrait that is self-deprecating, funny, and worldly-wise, revealing the inner workings of one of the best musicians and songwriters on the planet.
Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King Jr. and the International Hunt for His Assassin (By Hampton Sides. Doubleday)
It sometimes leans heavily on long-established research, and does little to answer pressing questions from conspiracy theorists about whether James Earl Ray acted alone in killing the great civil-rights leader. But this day-by-day—and at times minute-by-minute—account of the King assassination and the massive investigation that followed amounts to an utterly gripping depiction of America in the late ’60s, in all its political heroism and stark violence. At the centre stands the jittery figure of Ray, both bland and deeply menacing.
A World Without Islam (By Graham E. Fuller. Little, Brown and Company)
Would there be so much strife between western powers and the developing world if Islam never existed? A World Without Islam makes a persuasive case that religion is often invoked to justify wars, but it is rarely the cause, even in the Middle East. Fuller, an SFU adjunct professor of history and former vice-chairman of the CIA’s National Intelligence Council, delivers an erudite review of the history of Christianity and Islam, highlighting how recent developments in the Muslim world parallel the Christian Reformation. The author closes with an anti-imperialist message: to reduce confrontation, all western armed forces should be withdrawn from Islamic countries.
Arrival City: The Final Migration and Our Next World (By Doug Saunders. Knopf Canada)
You’ll never look at immigration the same way again after reading this book. Saunders, a Globe and Mail columnist, takes readers on a spellbinding tour of the world’s crowded “arrival” cities, where people move to flee the countryside. He shows how the mass migration from rural to urban areas has transformed cities—including Istanbul, London, Los Angeles, Nairobi, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and Tehran—sometimes positively and sometimes negatively, depending on how the integration process occurs. This is more than a journalistic diary; Saunders supplements his stories about real people with impressive sociological research.
The Trouble With Billionaires (By Linda McQuaig and Neil Brooks. Viking Canada)
Normally, taxation is a pretty dull topic, but not in the hands of McQuaig, a Toronto Star columnist, and Brooks, a professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. Drawing upon the history of the 1929 stock-market crash, they demonstrate how a growing gap between rich and poor contributes to economic instability, poorer health outcomes for everyone, and a diminution of democracy. McQuaig and Brooks offer solutions—such as an international clampdown on tax evaders, a progressive inheritance tax, and higher marginal tax rates—that you probably won’t see endorsed in right-wing newspapers.
The Armageddon Factor: The Rise of Christian Nationalism in Canada (By Marci McDonald. Random House Canada)
McDonald, a veteran Canadian journalist, reveals how the Christian right influences the Stephen Harper government. Although The Armageddon Factor has been picked apart by Conservative supporters for minor errors, it remains a landmark examination of different strains of fundamentalist thinking, including Christian reconstructionism, which aims to turn Canada into a theocracy. Scary stuff.
The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Civilization’s Northern future (By Laurence C. Smith. Dutton)
The scope is breathtaking, focusing on demographics, demand for natural resources, climate change, and globalization. Smith, a UCLA professor of geography, has written an engaging book forecasting the impact of these four forces over the next 40 years in the northern parts of North America, Europe, and Asia. It’s not all bad news. Smith is a faculty colleague of Pulitzer Prize–winner Jared Diamond, and fans of Diamond’s books will see similarities in Smith’s approach to writing about geography.
The Horse That Leaps Through Clouds: A Tale of Espionage, the Silk Road and the Rise of Modern China (By Eric Enno Tamm. Douglas & McIntyre)
Using Baron Carl Gustaf Emil Mannerheim’s early-20th-century journey into the wilds of central Asia as his template, Canadian author Eric Enno Tamm embarks on a multifaceted exploration of the Great Game as it was played then and as it is being played today. Statesman, ethnographer, and Russian spy, Mannerheim is a fascinating character, but Tamm’s most gripping conclusions have to do with China’s commercial and territorial ambitions, which have not changed much despite the country’s transformation from imperial power to industrial giant.
Greedy Little Eyes (By Billie Livingston. Vintage Canada)
The world is full of wan little books about dysfunctional families, but Billie Livingston’s latest is not one of them. Yes, some of the short stories collected in Greedy Little Eyes draw on the author’s own less-than-idyllic upbringing, but rather than focus on the pain of a misbegotten childhood, Livingston is interested in what it takes to survive an unpromising start. Not that she’s any kind of cheerleader or self-help guru. There are no Beautiful B.C. clichés in her many Vancouver-set scenes; instead, she renders the small, surreal details of the low-rent life with uncompromising accuracy and a generous helping of compassion.
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (By Isabel Wilkerson. Random House)
Beginning at the turn of the 20th century, accelerating through two world wars, and finally slowing to a trickle in the 1960s, the Great Migration saw an estimated six million African Americans leave the cotton plantations of the South for the urban centres of the North and West. The effect on American society was immense—and, Isabel Wilkerson argues, mostly positive. Interspersing detailed social and economic research with the life stories of three very different migrants—a devout, almost saintly hospital worker; a politically astute railroad porter; and an ambitious, if flawed doctor—she’s produced an exemplary work of oral history.
Insectopedia (By Hugh Raffles. Pantheon)
Neither as weighty nor as complete as its title might indicate, Insectopedia is instead a selective and highly anthropocentric survey of what happens when bugs and humans meet. You’d probably learn as much from an afternoon Googling “weird insect stories”, but you wouldn’t have the pleasure of anthropologist Hugh Raffles’s company as he delves into everything from edible locusts to collectible beetles to crush fetishists, who get an orgasmic kick out of watching attractive women squish creepy, crawly invertebrates underfoot. In the latter case, maybe there is such a thing as too much information.
Electric Eden (By Rob Young. Faber and Faber)
Subtitled Unearthing Britain’s Visionary Music, Rob Young’s sprawling survey of English folk and folk-rock could be more tightly knit, with its combination of dutiful history and wild speculation sometimes threatening to fall apart. Yet the Wire editor makes a convincing case that, wittingly or not, much of the best English music of the past century is rooted in a covert tradition of nature mysticism that still rustles beneath today’s motorways and council estates.