Georgia Straight critics review the year in books
Below is our annual roundup of the books that mesmerized our regular reviewers over the year. Though hugely varied as a group, all of these titles supplied a joltlike reminder of the powers of long-form writing, at a time when the written word is proliferating like crazy but its frameworks are shrinking.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir
(By Salman Rushdie. Knopf Canada)
“Bad to live through, interesting to write about”—that’s how Salman Rushdie, when speaking with the Georgia Straight recently, summed up his years in hiding from the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s death sentence. Despite the kegs of ink that have been spilled about this incident over the last two decades, it’s now clear that we had no idea just how bad, or how interesting. Joseph Anton is presented as a story first and foremost, one that rarely flags over its 600-plus pages. In it, a masterful novelist evokes the fear, claustrophobia, and relentlessness of an experience that was akin to being pulled through a looking glass.
(By Anakana Schofield. Biblioasis)
In her debut novel, the Vancouver-based writer rolls out a fully realized marvel of a character, one who seems like she’s been there all along, waiting to be written into story form. Our Woman, as she’s named here, belongs to the settled ways of the Irish countryside—until her world is capsized by the hidden sexual lives of her husband and her son. Schofield has fashioned a truly memorable figure, clear as day from the opening pages of this raw, sad, funny book, and yet consistently surprising.
Leonardo and the Last Supper
(By Ross King. Bond Street)
The Canadian-born historian draws Leonardo da Vinci out of the realm of legend and into the ranks of the human with this fascinating portrait of the archetypal Renaissance genius and his second-most famous painting. King performs the feat with something like a great film director’s instinct for pace, focusing in concise turns not just on Leonardo’s life and obsessions, but on the strangeness and violence of the streets and courts of the day. And above it all hangs that silent but turbulent image, in its half-broken glory.
This Is How You Lose Her
(By Junot Díaz. Riverhead)
Junot Díaz is one of those writers whose personal life is so tied up with his fictional characters that it’s hard not to regard This Is How You Lose Her, his short-story heartbreak opus, as an obvious attempt to turn a really shitty life event into something meaningful. But if that’s what it is, it’s a massive success. He writes a character both endearing and sympathetic, whose behaviour is a scathing criticism of macho male failings. After publishing this, he won the $500,000 MacArthur “genius grant”, so rest assured, I’m not the only fangirl out there.
How to Get Into the Twin Palms
(By Karolina Waclawiak. Two Dollar Radio)
Karolina Waclawiak’s debut novel with the spunky little Two Dollar Radio press effectively upends the immigrant-novel formula (more vodka, less upwardly mobile striving), but she’s also done a great job at depicting the desperate measures that truly lonely people can take in an attempt to belong. Her complicated antiheroine, Anya, carries this moody story right to its disastrous end.
(By Zadie Smith. Hamish Hamilton)
The highly anticipated NW is not as accessible Smith’s earlier stuff, but it’s still great—and it’s even better if you junk your expectations of structural evenness and consider it as four novellas (and an epilogue) packaged together. Centring on the lives of four 30-somethings in Northwest London, it’s a complicated novel about race, relationships, aging, and gentrification. It also contains a dinner party scene full of merciless lines like “Pass the coffee. It’s not just any coffee, it’s extremely good coffee” that’ll make you want to toss your gluten-free artisanal cookies.
Private Empire: ExxonMobil and American Power
(By Steve Coll. Penguin)
This is a stunningly detailed and readable examination of the world’s largest oil giant—how it secures petroleum reserves, negotiates with foreign governments, beats back environmentalists, and advances its case in Washington, D.C. Let Coll take you on an unforgettable trip with ExxonMobil executives and lawyers to Venezuela, Russia, Indonesia, Chad, Saudi Arabia, and Alaska. Dispense with Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. Coll has written the best business book of the year.
What We Talk About When We Talk About War
(By Noah Richler. Goose Lane)
This erudite and important polemic exposes how major media figures, military historians, politicians, and generals have discredited Canada’s peacekeeping past in their quest to turn us into a nation that loves war. Richler explains how the cultivation of an us-and-them mentality—which he calls epic thinking—advances their agenda by demonizing people who are different and papering over the home team’s shortcomings. You see it in the writings of Christie Blatchford, the pronouncements of Rick Hillier, and the policies of Stephen Harper. This same epic thinking also threatens our civil liberties and our democracy.
Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt
(By Yves Engler. RED/Fernwood)
The only serious flaw in Richler’s outstanding work (see above) is his soft treatment of former prime minister Lester B. Pearson. Engler provides the antidote in this meticulously researched “truth commission” on the Nobel Peace Prize winner. Pearson is revealed as a wily diplomat and likely war criminal who went to extreme lengths to please the United States, facilitating the bombing of North Vietnam in the 1960s and laying the foundation for Harper-style imperialism in the 21st century.
(By Lysley Tenorio. Ecco)
The eight stories in this debut volume are marvellous—tender as lullabies, memorable as farewells. Tenorio conjures the quiet remorse and heart-rending optimism of Filipinos in America and abroad through a diverse cast that includes lepers, charlatans, patriots, and a cult film star. With compassion and reverence, these vignettes convey lifetimes hinged on illusions, subtly examining the tensions between East and West, nostalgia and fallacy, while illuminating the chasm separating circumstance from wish fulfillment.
Joseph Anton: A Memoir
(By Salman Rushdie. Knopf Canada)
Since February 14, 1989, when a death warrant was issued against him by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the word fatwa has shadowed any mention of the literary icon like a vulture circling prey. This captivating autobiography documents the mayhem that erupted over Rushdie’s novel The Satanic Verses, and portrays not only the cloak-and-dagger diplomacy restricting his movements but the numerous relationships and deep-seated convictions that sustained him during his years in hiding. Echoing the author’s other material, where mythology and exile are polestars, this personal history fascinates as it dispels the brume of legend often obscuring the man himself.
The Map and the Territory
(By Michel Houellebecq, translated by Gavin Bowd. Knopf)
Despite the acclaimed French writer’s reputation for controversy, his fifth novel does little to stoke public outrage and meditates on art, consumerism, professional identity, and time’s voracious ways. Told as a triptych, it surveys the life and career of fictional artist Jed Martin and later, in a meta-conceit, the savage murder of author Michel Houellebecq, who collaborated with him on an exhibition catalogue. Illustrating the solitude of these unorthodox minds, the book is rife with dark and keen observations on the value of moments in inconsequential lives, and recognizes the chance at immortality offered by creative endeavour.
The Lifespan of a Fact
(By John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. W.W. Norton)
A genre-defying magazine journalist writes an essay about suicide in Las Vegas. His fact-checker, diligent to a fault, comes across literally hundreds of irregularities. So begins the year’s most surprising and provocative book, a literary dustup between polar opposites that’s playful, invigorating, and alive on every page (beautifully designed, too). You may start off confident in your beliefs about truth and art, but prepare to be shaken. No other book raised so many big questions this year, so well.
(By Anakana Schofield. Biblioasis) Great fiction takes risks. That’s why descriptions of a classic and an utter fiasco can sound so similar. And yes, in theory, the debut novel by Vancouver’s Anakana Schofield is far from a sure thing: it’s an obsessive, voice-driven novel about a grieving Irish housewife that runs along irregular timelines and lingers at unusual places. It also never, ever apologizes for itself. More importantly, it all works. Joe Biden may have done more to repopularize the word malarky this year, but Schofield’s electrifying novel will leave a much longer impression.
(By Leanne Shapton. Blue Rider)
Midway through this gorgeous, buoyant hybrid of a memoir, Leanne Shapton inserts a 26-part photo series documenting, with captions, every swimsuit she owns. It’s a testament to the Ontario-born author’s powers of persuasion that this feels like the most natural move in the world. Swimming Studies looks back at the years Shapton spent chasing a spot on the Canadian Olympic team, but it’s also a bewitching tribute to the smaller details that piled up along the way: stopwatch beeps, hotel dinners, and the muscle memory formed by countless laps in a chilled, predawn pool.
(By Anakana Schofield. Biblioasis)
I laughed, I cried, and I’m not kidding. The immensely gifted Anakana Schofield’s vivid study of a middle-aged Irish housewife’s nervous breakdown has a huge heart and a fierce brain; Malarky is, by a wide margin, the most memorable fiction I’ve read this year. Our Woman invents some dubious remedies for her diabetes, not to mention her sense of shame and loss over her husband’s philandering and subsequent death; nine out of 10 doctors would not prescribe fruitcake and sex with strangers. But sometimes cures can take curious form, in life as in this extremely delicious novel.
(By Oliver Sacks. Knopf Canada)
Of all the authors I’ve interviewed, Oliver Sacks stands out for his wit, his openness, his appetite, and his intelligence, qualities that are scintillatingly evident in this deep examination of the unreal. In Hallucinations, the New York–based neurologist willingly owns up to his own ’60s experiments with psychedelic drugs while exploring other sources of otherworldly experience, including illness, stress, and psychological sensitivity. Typically, he offers few definitive conclusions—but stirs up all sorts of fascinating possibilities, including the notion that psychic states are rooted in a kind of protective hyperawareness now lost to most humans.
Modernist Cuisine at Home
(By Nathan Myhrvold with Maxime Bilet. The Cooking Lab)
There’s an element of fiddling while Rome burns in recommending a three-kilo culinary bible at a time when food security is a far more pressing matter. Nor will Modernist Cuisine at Home turn the average burger-flipper into the next Ferran Adrià or René Redzepi, although to their credit authors Nathan Myhrvold and Maxime Bilet downplay gooseneck barnacles and wild woodruff in favour of fairly commonplace ingredients. But as an introductory guide to an array of hitherto inaccessible techniques, and as another prod to really think about what we eat, serious home cooks will find it a fantastic and lasting source of inspiration.