It’s hard to imagine any book rivalling the hallucination that was 2016, apart from the Book of Revelation. Still, in a year that outstripped fiction itself for bitter irony and shocking twists, many excellent works appeared. So we asked several distinguished members of the local literary scene to help us sort through the stacks. As ever in our annual roundup, we weren’t looking for “best” books, because that’s an impossibly slippery task. We wanted to hear about favourites—the ones that resonated, haunted, provoked, and endeared themselves above all others. Each of our respondents has been limited to just one title—except for the Vancouver Public Library Reading Experts, who collectively picked two.
(author, SFU chancellor)
I was moved by Claudia Casper’s latest novel, The Mercy Journals. This is a rare speculative, postapocalyptic book in which the protagonists have learned lessons that might help our flawed species to survive. Divided into two neatly interconnected parts, The Mercy Journals blends novelistic narrative, biblical themes, and news from current and future headlines into a compelling story that covers peace and war, abundance and scarcity, new life and murder. The book is set in the Pacific Northwest, a familiar setting for Georgia Straight readers. The time is a few decades in the future. Mercy is a former soldier suffering from PTSD. His healing begins in the city, and reaches a surprising and satisfying conclusion in the wilderness we are at risk of undervaluing and so losing.
(actor, writer, former VPL aboriginal storyteller in residence)
We all have a distorted view of “Canada” (from the Iroquoian word Kanata, meaning “village”) because of colonization. For Mohawk writer Janet Rogers, her fifth book of poetry, Totem Poles and Railroads, brings a dual lens toward the influences between First Nations and Kanata world-views. Such as her poem “Where Are Your Guts?”, with its title from a line originally spoken by Johnny Cash, asking radio stations why they refused to play his songs from his concept album Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian in 1964. Our collective Kanata history has a way of putting pressure on the present, and Janet Rogers has a way of consistently challenging the reader to deconstruct their own narratives toward this land we all know as Canada. Since reading her poems, I now use the reminders to deconstruct my colonized world. In Janet’s words, “Trust your guts, don’t forget & constantly remember, be grateful.”
Duncan McCue’s memoir The Shoe Boy is an urgent book. It’s tightly paced; and as it’s published by Nonvella, it isn’t long. He recounts the few months he spent at age 17, living with a James Bay Cree family. He discusses their way of life, which is challenged by its very remoteness. He talks candidly about his own coming of age, his Anishinaabe iden-tity, and the culture shock he is keenly aware of today. With clarity he repeats the urgency of realizing the lot of First Nations youth. He’s written the book in the midst of a busy and distinguished career in television news. And as he’s also just taken on the hosting chores of CBC Radio One’s Cross Country Checkup, I really hope he’ll continue to find time to write, as his voice is familiar as it is fresh.
(author, winner of the 2016 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize)
I had the pleasure of hearing Anosh Irani read at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. I found myself checking my heart to make sure it was still beating because his words drove The Parcel’s narrative into me like a stake. Irani has said he “writes from the body” and I believe him because the power of his work goes beyond subject matter: the voice touched me in ways only a story from the gut can deliver. The impetus and urgency of Madhu’s story, the tragic tale of a hijra from Bombay, make this book, for me, my favourite book of 2016.
Vancouver Public Library Reading Experts
2016 was another rich year for literature, making it difficult to pick just one title that we absolutely loved. So we, the VPL Reading Experts, offer two outstanding books. Our first pick is Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Vancouver-born Madeleine Thien. Perhaps no country underwent social change on the scale of China during the 20th century. History documents the results, but what about the human cost? How can a novelist make human collateral damage more than just a number? The sweep of Thien’s book brilliantly achieves this feat by concentrating her narrative on the fate of the individual. We also have Alina Bronsky’s Baba Dunja’s Last Love, a wonderful novel featuring a determined Russian matriarch, Baba Dunja, who convinces a group of former neighbours to resettle in their abandoned village located in a nuclear contamination zone. The isolation of the villagers reminded us of the fate of the plague village of Eyam in Geraldine Brooks’s Year of Wonders.