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.
(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.