Who can say with scientific authority what’s best in books? No one, obviously. Writing ain’t the Olympics, and we’re all better off for that. So let’s talk instead about which works were our critics’ favourites in 2009—which ones stuck with them the longest, or did the most to change their outlook, or insisted they badger friends and acquaintances with recommendations. Here’s our annual list.
Every Man Dies Alone
(By Hans Fallada, translated by Michael Hoffman. Melville House, 544 pp)
Perhaps the most important piece of literary salvage work in 2009 was this extraordinary but largely forgotten novel by the late German author Hans Fallada, rendered in English for the first time. Based on a real-life case and written in a three-week burst in 1946, the story follows a courageous yet hapless Berlin couple who resist the Nazi regime. Its vision of daily life under Hitler burns with Fallada’s own tormented experiences, creating a hypnotic plot and an invaluable document.
The Golden Mean
(By Annabel Lyon. Random House Canada, 284 pp)
New Westminster’s Annabel Lyon revisits one of the most charged meetings in western history, between the Greek philosopher Aristotle and a precocious, often cruel young student who would later achieve fame as Alexander the Great. The result is a startling portrait of an age, full of restrained poetry and alive with the insight, ambition, and ruthlessness of its subjects.
Having Faith in the Polar Girls’ Prison
(By Cathleen With. Viking Canada, 224 pp)
A tiny, frozen community on the far edge of the Northwest Territories, rife with betrayals and frayed alliances, is reflected in the winter-darkened thoughts of Trista, a 15-year-old single mother in custody for a violent crime that is only slowly revealed. This magnetic debut novel by Vancouver’s Cathleen With is a spare, sentiment-free look at the struggle between self-destructive nihilism and fragile hopes passed from one generation to the next.
(By Graham Rawle. Counterpoint, 440 pp)
Using 40,000 fragments of text clipped from early-’60s women’s magazines (all faithfully reproduced on the page), British artist Graham Rawle stitches together a one-of-a-kind comic novel. The blizzard of clichés from the golden age of homemaking naturally creates satire, but Rawle’s ingeniously constructed and fully human tale also works as a resonant metaphor for how we build identities out of the cultural flotsam around us.
Just Watch Me: The Life of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, 1968–2000
(By John English. Knopf Canada, 789 pp)
This second volume completes the benchmark biography of a figure who continues to haunt the nation he shaped. John English’s painstaking research creates a canvas big enough to explore the many sides of a complex, era-dominating personality, who embodied irreverence and flair but was also steely, guarded, and solitary.
A Woman Among Warlords: The Extraordinary Story of an Afghan Who Dared to Raise Her Voice
(By Malalai Joya, with Derrick O’Keefe. Scribner, 231 pp)
Malalai Joya requires the round-the-clock protection of bodyguards for telling blunt truths about the warlords, criminals, and religious fanatics who control Afghanistan. Her brave and uncompromising book reminded me of Shirin Ebadi’s 2006 autobiography, Iran Awakening, and it forces readers to question everything they’ve heard about NATO’s efforts to promote democracy and improve women’s rights in Afghanistan.
Googled: The End of the World As We Know It
(By Ken Auletta. Penguin, 384 pp)
Computer-engineering nerds Larry Page and Sergey Brin have put Bill Gates and Rupert Murdoch on the defensive, and threatened the future of book publishers, advertising agencies, and television networks. Now, Google’s founders are taking on the telecommunications industry. Veteran media writer Ken Auletta takes readers deep inside Google to learn how its engineering culture has succeeded so brilliantly, and why the corporation could face trouble in the future.
Not a Conspiracy Theory: How Business Propaganda Hijacks Democracy
(By Donald Gutstein. Key Porter, 376 pp)
Burnaby’s Donald Gutstein combines the research skills of an investigative reporter with the overarching theoretical insights of an academic to explain why Canada has become such a hotbed of right-wing thinking. He exposes the collusion of key journalists, think tanks, and business propagandists, making this an incendiary book.
Sheeple: Caucus Confidential in Stephen Harper’s Ottawa
(By Garth Turner. Key Porter, 223 pp)
Garth Turner, a feisty Toronto financial journalist, chronicles his unsuccessful attempt to become Canada’s first wired MP—with a blog, webcasts, and citizen input—in Stephen Harper’s cultlike Conservative caucus. At one point, Harper tells Turner that journalists make bad politicians because they think they always have to tell the truth. This book will be a fix for any political junkie on your Christmas list.
Why Your World Is About to Get a Whole Lot Smaller: Oil and the End of Globalization
(By Jeff Rubin. Random House Canada, 286 pp)
A former chief economist at CIBC World Markets, Jeff Rubin has managed to write a lively and somewhat optimistic book about peak oil. He vividly demonstrates how oil-producing countries have dramatically increased consumption, and why that matters to all of us. After reading this, you’ll never look at the provincial Gateway Program the same way again.
Crazy for the Storm
(By Norman Ollestad. HarperCollins, 272 pp)
Is it a testament to a book’s emotional wallop if you still feel its grip months after reading? Norman Ollestad’s riveting memoir—both a heart-thumping account of surviving a mountaintop plane crash at age 11 and a dazzling yet acutely poignant chronicle of adrenaline-crazed surf-and-snow adventures that bonded a father and son—should induce everybody to stop Facebooking already and grab those skis.
Lark & Termite
(By Jayne Anne Phillips. Knopf, 272 pp)
Maybe you’re not feeling so keen for a novel that flips between a “minimally hydrocephalic” nine-year-old in 1959 West Virginia and his wounded-soldier father, caught in a 1950 Korean War fuck-up. Uh-huh. But hypnotic tale-teller Jayne Anne Phillips leads you deep inside the electric wonderland of that supposedly compromised noggin, and deeper into the intricate mysteries of a tragic yet beautifully odd family. Now try snapping out of it.
(By John Wray. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 272 pp)
Hmm, turns out a little trouble in the brainpan isn’t a bad thing in fiction. Ridiculously gifted Brooklyn novelist John Wray sends off-his-meds schizophrenic teen Will, aka Lowboy, on an enigmatic mission through New York’s subway system, with a cop and Will’s film-noir-fabulous mother on his heels. It’s a strange, eloquent, tragicomic, hurtling head trip until the last train stops.
Await Your Reply
(By Dan Chaon. Ballantine, 324 pp)
The severed hand in the Styrofoam cooler is only the beginning. In this mind-messing Rubik’s Cube of a novel, who’s who is always a very good question, and cryptic messages in Cyrillic are always very bad things. But even the scammers are endearingly childlike lost souls in Dan Chaon’s haunting, crackerjack con. And hey, smack yourself upside the head when it all falls into place.
How It Ended: New and Collected Stories
(By Jay McInerney. Knopf, 352 pp)
Good thing Jay McInerney sucked as a fact checker for the New Yorker. Three decades of short fiction from the It Boy of the Manhattan novel—thanks to that wiseass chronicle of the coke-dusted, hedonistic ’80s club scene, Bright Lights, Big City—prove the party’s still highly entertaining, and that the witty, empathetic host is an ever-sly observer of fallible humans. No Bolivian marching powder required.
(By Michael Crummey. Random House, 352 pp)
Describing an epic battle between haves and have-nots—i.e., Protestants and Catholics—that spans more than a century of Newfoundland history, Galore is a particularly strong entry in the small but select subgenre of outport magic realism. Incorporating ghost stories, family sagas, and an albino Jonah, it’s also notable for author Michael Crummey’s precise and poetic use of dialect.
Her Fearful Symmetry
(By Audrey Niffenegger. Knopf Canada, 416 pp)
You won’t want to put this down. I didn’t, anyway: Audrey Niffenegger’s darkly compelling novel of death and resurrection kept me spellbound well into the night, and I had to finish it in a sprint upon waking. This neogothic gem is a gripping mix of horror and what-the-hell’s-coming-next hilarity.
(By Colin Tudge. Crown, 462 pp)
Subtitled A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live, this book features everything you need to know about the avian universe, with science writer Colin Tudge delivering his considerable erudition in charmingly anecdotal fashion. And I got a kick out of that “who” in the subtitle. In my world, birds are people too.
(By Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas. Douglas & McIntyre, 120 pp)
A thrilling tale of obsession, revenge, and self-sacrifice, this “Haida manga” graphic novel is bold yet subtle. But the true scope of Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas’s vision isn’t fully revealed until its pages are reconfigured in poster form, as shown inside Red’s dust jacket. Linking the modernist grid, Northwest Coast ovoids, and classic comic-book moves, this book is also a stunning work of visual art.
The Wire Primers: a guide to modern music
(Edited by Rob Young. Verso, 320 pp)
Add this collection of artist and genre guides lifted from U.K.–based magazine the Wire to Alex Ross’s insightful The Rest Is Noise, and you’ll have a comprehensive introduction to the musical avant-garde. The Wire Primers employs a relatively populist approach—surveying James Brown and avant-metal in addition to Morton Feldman and musique concrí¨te—but given the growing interpenetration of styles in all forms of music, that seems both appropriate and necessary.