Critics make year-end book picks
Here’s our annual roundup of the books that struck us as outstanding this year—not exhaustive, not definitive, but an accurate thumbnail of what grabbed us and didn’t let go. These are the titles that made us miss the bus, cross without looking, burn the pot roast, forget to buy pet food, and generally read until red-eyed.
Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest (By Wade Davis. Knopf Canada)
The British-led climbing parties that first tried to scale the world’s highest mountain back in the 1920s seemed tough as the nails on their boots, but each member carried physical or mental wounds from the brutalities of World War I. This engrossing, intensely researched account breaks open the legend of the expeditions and their mercurial star, George Mallory, to show an empire both near its peak and entering its twilight.
The Sisters Brothers (By Patrick deWitt. Anansi)
The young Vancouver Island–born author overhauls the western in a road story filled with heart and nerve. Eli Sisters, a hulking assassin with a melancholy streak, narrates with a kind of seamless poetry. His words are piercing and funny, even when describing the violence and cruelty of his drunken brother, Charlie, just one of many men being driven across the landscape by greed.
Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past (By Simon Reynolds. Faber and Faber)
Focused on music but also taking in film and fashion, this smart, scathing work by the English-born critic argues that bloodless nostalgia has smothered artistic creativity in the 21st century, an era when pop’s entire back catalogue is always just a mouse click away, ready to be quoted and reshuffled. Whether or not you believe Reynolds when he declares that “pop is living on borrowed time and stolen energy,” you’ll find plenty here to debate late into the night.
Pulphead (By John Jeremiah Sullivan. Farrar, Straus & Giroux)
GQ’s best-kept secret does a high dive into the depths of American culture in this, his first collection of essays. Sullivan is a virtuoso of the form, and his instincts are impeccable: from Michael Jackson to murderous stingrays, cave paintings to One Tree Hill, he digs up something wonderful every time. Best of all is Sullivan’s authorial voice, whose curiosity and humanity are evergreen. If I put it out there that I think we’d make great pals, that’s not weird, right? Right?
The Fates Will Find Their Way (By Hannah Pittard. Ecco)
Sure, using the first-person plural will automatically lend your book a kind of stately resonance, but Pittard’s debut novel actually deserves to keep it. The chorus in Fates is a pack of hormonal, secretly grieving teenage boys, obsessed with a missing female classmate. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is how Pittard conducts her choir: it coalesces into several distinct shapes, each boy given small moments of individual mourning before retreating into the anonymous blob.
Abbott Awaits (By Chris Bach-elder. Louisiana State University Press)
Reason No. 863 why mainstream publishing deserves to go down in flames: it let the third novel by the brilliant Bachelder slip right through its fingers. Abbott Awaits is a novel-in-vignettes about a father struggling with the day-to-day of his summer vacation, and it deserves to be trumpeted on Eugenidesian billboards across the continent. It expertly captures middle-class masculinity in all its rudderless, petulant, cripplingly self-conscious glory—yet you won’t find it in any bookstore, and that is a goddamn crime.
Childhood Under Siege: How Big Business Targets Children (By Joel Bakan. Allen Lane Canada)
Who knew that marketing to children could be so sinister? UBC law professor Bakan’s shocking investigation reveals how corporations hook kids on video games and psychiatric drugs—and employ brazenly unethical methods to accomplish these objectives. The villains in this page-turner also want to hijack the school system to line their shareholders’ pockets and screw with the bible of psychiatric medicine. Scary stuff.
This Crazy Time: Living Our Environmental Challenge (By Tzeporah Berman with Mark Leiren-Young. Alfred A. Knopf Canada)
Berman has been condemned by some left-wingers for supporting run-of-river power projects, but that doesn’t mean she can’t tell a story. She takes readers on a wild ride from the barricades to the boardrooms, chronicling her rise from scruffy antilogging protester to one of the world’s most influential environmentalists with Greenpeace International. To her credit, she manages to make the science about climate change easy to understand and frightening to contemplate.
Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India (By Joseph Lelyveld. Knopf)
Lelyveld, a former New York Times executive editor, portrays the Indian freedom fighter as thoroughly human, sometimes flawed, ambitious, decisive, and a shrewd political leader who made astonishing compromises in pursuit of his goals. In this finely crafted and superbly researched biography, Lelyveld offers deep insights into how Gandhi’s time in England and South Africa influenced his ecumenical approach, which ultimately led to his assassination by a Hindu fanatic. It’s a great book about a great soul.
The Sisters Brothers (By Patrick deWitt. Anansi)
The Sisters Brothers ain’t your grandpa’s western (sorry to any Zane Grey fans out there). DeWitt dusts off all the genre gunk of the typical western and transforms it into such a darkly entertaining piece of literary fiction that judges added the book as a wild card to pretty much every prize shortlist it qualified for: Booker, Giller, GGs, and Writers’ Trust (it won the last two). It also helped spark a heated debate in the UK about whether Booker noms should be “readable”—which I’ll happily say this book is.
The Leftovers (By Tom Perrotta. Random House Canada)
According to doomsday wing nut Harold Camping, the Rapture was supposed to go down in May (or October) 2011, so Perrotta’s fall book about the Rapture’s rejects was incredibly well-timed. It’s a worthy addition to the canon of postapocalyptic fiction—but here, the gloom comes from spiritual, not environmental, devastation. In Perrotta’s vision, people go poof regardless of religious affiliation, age, or whether they’re a “good person”, unsettling atheists and hard-core Christians alike. The ensuing existential theatre of post-Rapture cults, meaningless sex, and societal unravelling feels pretty bang-on.
The Art of Fielding (By Chad Harbach. Little, Brown and Company)
The 35-year-old n+1 editor’s much-ballyhooed debut ($650,000 advance! Vanity Fair feature! Franzen cover blurb!) is such a shoo-in for most end-of-year lists that it already feels redundant mentioning it, but I can’t help it. A coming-of-age story played out with great complexity and emotion on the baseball diamond of a small liberal-arts college, TAOF is the kind of novel that sweeps you up for a full week (or three days, in my case), until you’re through all 528 pages and left asking yourself why your own life isn’t that goddamn poignant.
Carrot City: Creating Places for Urban Agriculture (By Mark Gorgolewski, June Komisar, and Joe Nasr. Monacelli)
NPA mayoral hopeful Suzanne Anton’s ads attacking back-yard wheat fields and chicken coops didn’t cost her the election, but they certainly signalled her shaky grip on the things that matter. In this era of food-health scares and the 100-mile diet, urban agriculture is becoming a feel-good issue, and Carrot City is a stimulating look at what can be done in the field, so to speak. Many of the projects pictured here—including several from Vancouver—are both beautiful and bountiful, which only adds to their appeal.
Opening Doors: In Vancouver’s East End—Strathcona (Edited by Daphne Marlatt and Carol Itter. Harbour)
Vancouver’s 125th anniversary saw the civic-sponsored reprinting of 10 classic books about our region, all worthy of attention. If I had to pick one, though, it would be this open-hearted oral history of the Strathcona neighbourhood, assembled with a poet’s soul and an artist’s eye for detail, and originally issued in 1979. It’s fascinating to discover little-known facts about the Downtown Eastside, but the big picture beckons, too: Strathcona’s 1960s fight against being obliterated by freeways, well chronicled here, did much to make Vancouver the livable city it is today.
Beneath Cold Seas: The Underwater Wilderness of the Pacific Northwest (By David Hall. Greystone/David Suzuki Foundation)
The truism is that we understand more about the dark side of the moon than the black depths of the ocean, and for proof we only need consider how few resources are devoted to studying the marine environment relative to those spent on space exploration. Underwater photographer Hall’s interests are as much aesthetic as scientific, despite his degree in zoology, but his gorgeous images of the weird, wild, and watery should help spark public interest in a zone we need to know better.
Natural Order (By Brian Francis. Doubleday Canada)
Francis follows his widely acclaimed debut, Fruit, with this strobe-lit look at 86-year-old fuddy-duddy Joyce Sparks. Limning scenes from her decades in small-town Ontario—as a girl, a mother, and a widow—the Toronto author’s latest novel illustrates the willful ignorance and secret shame that eventually distance Joyce from her gay son. Heartfelt and finely told, the story is a sympathetic reflection on time’s corrosion of family, dignity, and self.
I Was a Dancer (By Jacques d’Amboise. Knopf)
A beguilingly warm raconteur, d’Amboise showcases a different kind of performance with his exuberant autobiography. One need not be familiar with the ballet world to be engaged by the famed dancer’s ardent recollections of his career with the New York City Ballet (from 1949 to 1984), or to be fascinated by his exploits with era-defining stars like the legendary choreographer George Balanchine. More than a record of life on- and off-stage, this volume celebrates the enduring duet between artistry and joy.
Nanjing Requiem (By Ha Jin. Pantheon)
In this portrait of quiet valour, the National Book Award–winning Jin commemorates Minnie Vautrin, the American missionary who protected some 10,000 Chinese citizens during the Rape of Nanjing. Merging fact with fiction, his deceptively simple prose recounts how Vautrin managed the refugee shelter at Jinling Women’s College once the city was seized by Japanese troops in 1937. Both tragic and spellbinding, the Boston resident’s novel memorializes one woman’s heroism amid atrocity and her eclipsing guilt over those she could not save.