After one year’s absence, I am happy to bring my Christmas booklist back to the Georgia Straight in 2018.
Alas, I am reading less. My booklists in past years have been a subset of extensive reading over the year, usually 50 or 60 books. This year, I read about half as many. The effect of cabinet submissions and briefing binders on me has been to dramatically increase the number of NBA games I watch on TV. The Raptors are playing great this year.
My favourite book of the year will not be on this list. Listening to the Bees is a collaboration between bee scientist Mark Winston and poet Renee Sarojini Saklikar, delivering science and poetry about the place of bees in our ecosystem and society. Great book, great choice. However, Renee is not only my favourite author, she is my wife. This fact puts Listening in the Bees in the introduction but not on the list!
My annual booklist criteria are simple. These are not necessarily books published in 2018. These are books I have read or re-read in 2018—books that I enjoyed and wish to recommend. (You can find links to my 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012 booklists for more ideas and possibilities.) This year, I organized the books by genre and, as always, in random order of preference.
Terese Marie Mailout, Heart Berries: A Memoir
Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run
Aaron Williams, Chasing Smoke: A Wildfire Memoir
Terese Mailout grew up on Seabird Island near Agassiz and tells her personal story—intergenerational trauma of residential schools, poverty, violence, abuse, hospitalization, and finally gaining power and agency of her own story through writing. This is a stunning book, a revelation, a complete surprise to me when it arrived in our home as a gift. I picked it up lazily and found it impossible to put down. The writing is transcendent. I have one suggestion: find this book in a library or bookstore and read the amazing first paragraph. If you do that, you will do what I did, and read it cover to cover.
Springsteen surprises as well. This is a beautifully written and constructed book, a celebrity biography that more than exceeds expectations. Here is a book like a Springsteen concert: long, fun, energizing, the story of an America that continues to attract in difficult times.
Williams’ book about fighting wildfires evokes Charlotte Gill’s Eating Dirt (about tree planting) from a few years ago. Fighting wildfires, especially now, is deeply ingrained in B.C. life and Chasing Smoke gives us a look-in at the experience. It’s fun and interesting. The perfect book for a holiday season.
Kim Thuy, Vi
Esi Eduyan, Washington Black
I didn’t read these two books back-to-back but I recommend doing so. Thuy lives in Montreal, Eduyan in Victoria, and they have written books that have captivated readers well beyond Canada’s borders.
The story of Kim Thuy’s title character, Vi, and her family, told over decades from her early years at the end of the Vietnam War and immigration to Montreal, is told with lyricism and no small amount of humour. In no way is this “teen fiction.” The refugee story is insightful and powerful, but young people I think will want to read about these characters and particularly enjoy this novel. I know, as an older person, I did.
Esi Eduyan has written a blockbuster of a historical novel. Washington Black, which won the Giller Prize this year, is the story of a slave on a sugar plantation in Barbados who ultimately escapes the plantation (by hot air balloon, no less). The story follows its lead character, Washington Black, from Barbados to Virginia, to the Arctic, Nova Scotia, London, Amsterdam, and Morocco, with bounty hunters in pursuit. It is a meditation on freedom—its form and limitation—on terror which has no limitations, and just a great read.
Ken Dryden, Game Change: The Life and Death of Steve Montador and the Future of Hockey
Yanis Vanoufakis, Adults in the Room
Ken Dryden’s The Game is the best hockey book I have ever read. Game Change is almost as good, telling the story of life and death of NHL defenceman Steve Montador, who suffered from CTE (chronic chronic traumatic encephalopathy) at the time of his death. Dryden’s love of the game continues but he is calling for a “game change” here, and the need to stop putting safety and player’s health at risk to play the game they and we love. It is hard to watch hockey or football (or MMA or boxing) in the same way again after reading this and knowing what we now know about the health effects of impact sports on the people that play them. Mike Webster, Steve Montador, Junior Seau, Derrick Boogeerd. The list goes on…
Vanoufakis has written a high-impact story of his six months as Greece’s Finance Minister, time he spent fighting for his country’s political and economic survival. His is the story of an unlikely politician challenging the established order, refusing to back down, and ultimately losing the battle. The “adults in the room” were the European leaders who forced Greece to suffer and suffer again for the sake of an economic and political orthodoxy that had lost its way. If this sounds dull, it is not. Vanoufakis’ book has great heart and reads like the suspense thriller it is.
Chelene Knight, Dear Current Occupant
Amanda Jernigan, Years Days and Months
Rachel Rose (Ed), Sustenance
Jernigan’s book transforms a 19th Century Mennonite hymnal into lyric poems. An exploration of Mennonite community and thought, told by an outsider. This small book is spare and haunting, fits into your pocket and contains stunning poetry.
Chelene Knight’s book is part memoir, photo essay, and poetry. She writes about growing up on Vancouver’s east side, overcoming heartache and loss. Dear Current Occupant is documentation of all the places the author lived in—houses, apartments, hotels—several of which are in my neighbourhood. The book recently won the City of Vancouver Book Prize for 2018.
Edited by Vancouver’s outgoing poet laureate, Rachel Rose, Sustenance brings artists, poets, chefs, and foodies together to share poetry and memory of food—its absence and abundance in our city. And best yet, all the contributors donated the proceeds to one of my favourite programs: the B.C. Farmers’ Market Coupon program. Community building at its best and a great read besides.
A Great Year of Writing from B.C. Journalists
Andrew MacLeod, All Together Healthy, A Canadian Wellness Revolution
Eve Lazarus, The Milkshake Murder
Travis Lupick, Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle With Addiction
Rob Shaw and Richard Zussman, A Matter of Confidence
Rod Mickleburgh, On the Line: A History of the British Columbia Labour Movement
Geoff Meggs, Strange New Country: The Fraser River Salmon Strikes of 1900–1901
Smaller newsrooms, fewer journalists, consolidation, worrisome power of Internet giants and dispersed, and collapsing readership have led to a decline in long-form, investigative journalism. What a happy surprise that so many great B.C. journalists—some active, some recently retired— wrote influential, thoughtful, and engaging books this year, defying this trend.
I was given a copy of Fighting for Space, which is written by the Straight’s own Travis Lupick, on a cold February evening in Terrace, and was advised that I absolutely, positively had to read it. The book tells the story of drug users and activists in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside who created harm reduction approaches that have saved lives. The characters are human, the research sound, the stories often tragic, always thoughtful, and engaging.
Andrew MacLeod’s book is necessary reading for health ministers and everyone else for that matter. He makes the case that the social determinants of health, the link between poverty and health outcomes in particular, must be addressed to improve health outcomes. They are in fact more important in many ways than investments in medical services. Poverty reduction is health care. Improved child care is health care. Like Lupick’s book, MacLeod has succeeded in influencing the public debate with a thoughtful, passionate book.
Eve Lazarus paints a picture of life in Vancouver in the 1960s with this true-crime story of the poisoning, “murder by milkshake,” of Eve Castellani by her husband and CKNW contributor Rene Castellani. It is a shocking tale, a murder that Mr. Castellani almost got away with that transfixed Vancouver at the time. Lazarus, as always, does a great job telling a sad, grisly, and compelling story.
Former journalists Mickleburgh and Meggs (now the B.C. premier’s chief of staff) dive into the province’s rich, colourful labour history. Richly illustrated, On the Line is a full-on history of the movement from the 19th century to the present. Strange New Country tells the story of a small part of that history: the famous fishery strikes of 1900-01 and the class and racial conflicts that defined those times.
Shaw and Zussman’s best-selling book of the end of the Liberal government and the arrival of the B.C. NDP is a fun, defiantly insider account of the 2017 election and the drawn-out change that led to Premier John Horgan’s government. The book has the feel of Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President books from the 1960s and 1970s.
There are many other books to recommend, from Gary Shteyngart’s truly hilarious Lake Success: A Novel to Mark Leibovich’s Big Game: The NFL in Dangerous Times, necessary reading for sports fans. However, it is time to stop writing and start reading for next year.
Happy Reading! Happy New Year!More