Book picks from a good year

Our critics look back at everything from provocative histories to moving novels

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      Once again, we present the books that shook our neurons, widened our world-views, and just flat-out entertained us over the last 12 months. As ever, this list could have been much, much longer, such was 2014’s output of first-rate titles. But we’ve limited ourselves to three apiece. Forget your family and friends—buy a few of these for yourself over the holidays.

      Brian Lynch

      The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (By Kevin Birmingham. Penguin Press)
      Literary classics are sometimes seen as a club of serenely Great Books engaged in polite conversation over a glass of sherry. But there was nothing serene or polite about the early years of Joyce’s monumental Ulysses. Birmingham’s fast-paced account includes so much more than the legal case around the obscenity charges that the novel drew after it came out in 1922. It takes in an entire culture where public morality was heavily policed by the post office, and the owners of small reviews and presses (most of them women) fought at serious personal risk to expand what books were allowed to say.

      Boyhood Island (By Karl Ove Knausgaard. Harvill Secker)
      The Norwegian-born author’s experiment in maximum memoir has stirred up bad feelings here and there, some of them among relatives whose lives have been laid bare to the public. Even so, praise has been widespread for this unlikeliest of publishing events: a 3,600-page autobiographical novel mostly about routines of family life. Boyhood Island, the third of the series’ six volumes to be translated into English, is every bit as revelatory and piercing as its two predecessors. Historians far in the future will pore over this obsessively detailed image of ordinary experience in our era.

      Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence (By Karen Armstrong. Knopf)
      Perhaps not the most focused book to date by the London-based historian of religion, but a provocative one on a subject that’s always timely. Armstrong rolls the clock back several millennia and starts at the recorded start, showing how the modern West’s self-satisfied notions about the intensely complex connections between religion and politics—even about what the term religion means—aren’t nearly as settled as we like to think. All of this would be academic if, as Armstrong points out, it didn’t interfere so deeply with our ability to empathize with cultures not exactly like our own.

      Alexander Varty

      The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (By Diane Ackerman. HarperCollins)
      A gentler companion to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, The Human Age takes a similarly sharp-eyed look at the Anthropocene—the first time since the evolution of blue-green algae that a single species has wrought startling changes to the Earth. But rather than predict a return to feudalism or a catastrophic, climate-change-induced die-off, Diane Ackerman suggests that the same human ingenuity that will soon bring our numbers to 10 billion might also allow us to rein in our excesses. The jury’s still out on that, but she makes a convincing argument for this beautiful dream.

      Respect Yourself (By Robert Gordon. Bloomsbury)
      Subtitled Stax Records and the Soul Explosion, Robert Gordon’s latest foray into the sonic lore of the Deep South isn’t nearly as delightfully bizarre as his brilliant It Came From Memphis, but then again it doesn’t have the same wigged-out cast of performance artists, fine-art photographers, party girls, stoners, and one-legged blues singers. Here, the focus is more specifically on musicians and businessmen, but given the context—the life and death of an integrated record label in a deeply segregated culture—it’s no less fascinating.

      Us Conductors (By Sean Michaels. Random House Canada)
      Music writer Sean Michaels takes crazy liberties with the life of Lev Termen; there’s no evidence, for instance, that the inventor of the theremin ever murdered anyone. But Us Conductors is fiction, not biography, and Michaels writes eloquently about the unsettling ecstasy of obsession and the airborne joy of musical discovery. This year’s Giller jury got it right when it awarded Michaels Canada’s top prize for fiction, and if that creates a spike in the sales of theremins, so much the better. I’ve already got mine!

      Jennifer Croll

      White Tiger on Snow Mountain (By David Gordon. New Harvest)
      By title alone, you might assume David Gordon’s short-story collection to be downright serene, but we all know about books and their covers. In reality, White Tiger on Snow Mountain is droll, perverted, wise, and hilarious. Gordon (whose crime novels have made him a huge star in Japan) writes characters with a deeply existential appreciation for the absurd, whose off-key adventures touch on love, vampires, Chinese cinema, and writing. (“The most important question facing any young writer may well be: How often should I masturbate and when?” he glibly asserts.) His story “I Think of Demons”, about teenage experiments with LSD, is so freakishly mind-bending that you should probably read it in a safe place, perhaps swaddled in a blanket.

      Consumed (By David Cronenberg. Hamish Hamilton)
      If “Long live the new flesh” is your go-to catchphrase, you’ll probably like David Cronenberg’s late-in-life literary debut, Consumed. It’s a natural addition to his body-horror canon, which ended when he quit writing gory and surreal original scripts (like Shivers and Videodrome) to focus on literary adaptations (like A History of Violence). A sexually depraved and technologically obsessed tale of a journalist couple separately pursuing a cannibalistic murderer-philosopher and a very exotic STD, it’s giddily obscene. More shocking than the copious gerontophilia and apotemnophilia is the fact that Consumed is Cronenberg’s most explicitly Canadian creation in years, complete with Toronto settings and characters with Québécois accents. Long live the new CanLit!

      Bad Feminist (By Roxane Gay. Harper Perennial)
      If there was any year that needed a Bad Feminist to swoop in to kick a little ass, 2014 was it. From Gamergate to Jiangate, it was a Very Bad Year, even when cast in the reflection of Queen Bey’s massive “FEMINIST” sign. Some solace can be found in Roxane Gay’s essay collection, which fuses smart pop-culture analysis with deeper reflections on life as a woman, with subjects running the gamut from Lena Dunham’s Girls to Sweet Valley High to the irritating ghettoization of so-called women’s fiction. “I increasingly feel that writing is a political act whether I intend it to be or not,” Gay says, while also acknowledging, “I am human. I am messy. I’m not trying to be an example.”

      Charlie Smith

      Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, Reason, Race, and the 1907 Vancouver Riots (By Julie F. Gilmour. Allen Lane)
      This book is ostensibly about how a rampaging mob in Vancouver helped launch the political career of William Lyon Mackenzie King, Canada’s longest-serving prime minister, but it’s actually a deeper historical treatise on how Canada emerged as an independent nation before the First World War. Gilmour, a University of Toronto historian, mines the globetrotting King’s diaries to reveal his deep-seated racism, as well as his clever knack for forming friendships with some of the era’s most powerful political figures. The author also explores the important role that King played in launching a century-long war on drugs and his unsuccessful effort to negotiate an end to the Chinese head tax. These were all part of the legacy of the 1907 attacks on Vancouver’s Chinatown and Japantown.

      Party of One: Stephen Harper and Canada's Radical Makeover (By Michael Harris. Viking)
      Harris, a veteran Canadian journalist and author, has written a scathing and detailed account of the Harper government’s shortcomings, including its destructive foreign policy, its appointment of dubious characters to high-profile positions, and its rank dishonesty, most notably in how it misled the public on the cost of F-35 jet fighters. At the centre is Stephen Harper, who comes across as a profoundly antidemocratic figure running a secretive one-man government. Harris’s book is the perfect antidote to the mainstream media’s frequent portrayal of Harper as a steady leader.

      Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada (By Donald Gutstein. James Lorimer & Company)
      Yes, it’s a second book on Stephen Harper, but it’s worth including because it offers deep theoretical insights not found anywhere else. Gutstein, an adjunct communications professor at SFU, reveals how Harper’s blind faith in markets is having a profound effect on government policies. The author shows how Harper, with the assistance of right-wing journalists and think tanks, is stealthily advancing the neoliberal revolution envisioned by his hero, free-market economist Friedrich Hayek, who felt that economic freedom should trump all other freedoms. Harperism is the best explanation yet for what’s happening in Ottawa and demonstrates why the Harper revolution will be difficult to unravel even if the Conservatives lose the next election.

      David Chau

      For Today I Am a Boy (By Kim Fu. HarperCollins)
      The search for self and its ensuing restlessness are compassionately conveyed in this unique work. Peter Huang, a female born into a male body, leaves small-town Ontario for Montreal seeking freedom and fulfillment. By juxtaposing this narrative with Peter’s sisters’ pursuits of acceptance, and their immigrant father’s efforts to be thoroughly Canadian, Fu creates both a coming-of-age story and a family portrait that explores gender, culture, and identity. A novel delivering the immediacy of autobiography and an emotional force that lasts is remarkable. That this is Fu’s debut is marvellous.

      The Troop (By Nick Cutter. Gallery)
      One of the country’s finest contemporary writers, Craig Davidson is known for vivid prose in which bare-knuckle brawls and animal cruelty underscore ideas on instinct and penance. This novel, his first under the Cutter pseudonym, returns to his earliest forays into fiction. (Davidson began his career writing horror under the pen name Patrick Lestewka.) Here, a stranded scout troop faces a human and a bioengineered foe on an island off the shore of P.E.I. Riffing on tropes while maintaining Davidson’s singular style, these pages are terrifically entertaining and as successful in their keen depictions of boyhood as in their visceral gore.

      The Bone Clocks (By David Mitchell. Knopf Canada)
      Mitchell introduces his most captivating character yet in this genre-splicing reflection on the ravages of time. Following the resilient Holly Sykes across six decades, from 1984 to 2043, the story employs multiple narrators—including a war reporter, an egomaniacal writer, and Holly herself—to address not only life’s phases and global conflicts, but Holly’s role in the battle between two factions of rival immortals. Previous books have showcased Mitchell’s attention to language and structure, though never before has he conjured the hearts and minds in his interconnected universe with such affecting power.