Another year has streaked by, and the time has come again for our annual selection of outstanding books. The undertaking has been as impossible as ever, what with all the great publications from the past 12 months. But it’s one way of recognizing the page-based experiences that’ll stay with us and, if there’s any such thing as justice, with the reading public at large.
Best of all, for this edition we asked a stellar group of figures from Vancouver’s literary community to give us their picks. You can read their responses below, where you’ll also notice that we’ve kept everyone to a single choice this time around (with the exception of the Vancouver Public Library, because, well… because the Vancouver Public Library is a big place with a lot of people in it).
Here’s the thing—Marilyn Dumont’s The Pemmican Eaters is easily my favourite book of 2015. And I think, for the most part, it’s because Dumont’s writing investigates Indigeneity and Métis identity through a gutted poetics that isn’t afraid to include long strips of raw thought that hang in stark opposition to colonial thought processes. The Pemmican Eaters is an unflinching and necessary book.
The novel Loving Day, by Mat Johnson, is a narrative thought experiment that asks, “What if mixed-race outcasts formed a cult that celebrated racial ambiguity?” It’s a zany premise, but anyone whose racial appearance is unclear will recognize in it a familiar desire to rewrite our terms of cultural reference. Johnson also knows that the problem of writing mixed-race has historically been one of how to escape false binaries: either/or; neither/nor; or “best of both worlds”—none of which fit anyone’s lived truths. Instead, he gives us something new: a hilariously existential novel that rightly revels in the absurd.
In an age of Canadian government apologies for the Chinese head tax and formal acknowledgment of Vancouver’s location on unceded aboriginal lands comes a book that reminds us of our past. Written by historian and acclaimed children’s author Paul Yee, A Superior Man recounts a Chinese coolie’s bid to abandon his mixed-race First Nations son as he prepares to return to China. The story depicts the lowest strata of 1880s society at a time when B.C. was the Wild West and Chinese labourers formed the backbone of the CPR workforce. Rampant racism and rough living on the lawless frontier are vividly portrayed through nonstop action and ribald language. This is a historical novel with bite.
(executive director, Word Vancouver)
My choice is George Bowering’s collection of short stories 10 Women. Initially, I picked up the book because I was drawn to the “voice” of George Bowering, a voice I became familiar with when we travelled together by van throughout the Okanagan as part of the B.C. Book Prizes Tour. 10 Women didn’t disappoint; I could hear George’s voice clearly, a true voice. I also really like how he’s able to—as they call it in theatre—break down the “third wall” between the stage (the stories) and the audience (the reader). These stories are great snippets of life, universal scenarios, and straightforward—like George.
(Vancouver’s poet laureate)
Detective Lori Shenher’s That Lonely Section of Hell is a gripping, almost unbearable true-crime tale that spares no one: not herself, not the other investigators, either VPD or RCMP, not those who were acquainted with or accomplices of convicted serial killer Robert Pickton, and most of all, not society at large. As the first detective assigned to Vancouver’s missing-and-murdered-women investigation, she has written a book that proves how the ongoing marginalization of women in the sex trade allowed Pickton to continue killing years after he was first identified as a suspect. Even more troubling, there have been no systematic changes that would prevent another Pickton from striking tomorrow.
VPL Readers Advisory Librarians
The Vancouver Public Library is proud to be the city’s bookshelf, and our reading experts have pooled their talents to present three titles representing the very best of our nation’s literary scene in 2015. SuperMutant Magic Academy, the anthology of Jillian Tamaki’s popular Tumblr comic, shows how graphic novels can be re-imagined online and transported back to the print world. Lori Shenher’s That Lonely Section of Hell lays bare both the institutional and societal failings that resulted in the near failure of the Downtown Eastside missing-women’s case: it is documentary nonfiction as an indictment of collective indifference. Lastly, Marry & Burn, the poetry collection by Vancouver’s laureate Rachel Rose, shatters the form’s tropes with its stark verse and affecting images.
(artistic director, Vancouver Writers Fest)
The Nature of the Beast by the Canadian writer Louise Penny opens with a frantic chase through a forest in rural Quebec and the pace lets up only occasionally throughout the rest of the novel. Penny’s 11-book series features Inspector Armand Gamache (rtd) and once again we get caught up in the challenges in his personal life, as well as a crime of immense proportions. The antagonist is a master manipulator, without a conscience, a foe of formidable proportions. It really is a battle between good and evil. If you are not familiar with the series, you will have the great pleasure of going back and catching up on what you’ve been missing.