I am happy publish my fifth annual Christmas book list, this year at Straight.com! The criteria are simple. These are not necessarily books published in 2016 or even recently. They are books I have read or re-read in 2016. Books that I admired, enjoyed, and wish to recommend.
This year, I proved what my dad used to say about television. I resubscribed to cable television in August. Yes, I have heard of Netflix and yes, the quantity of my reading declined. It’s true: television may stunt learning. Nonetheless, I read some truly great books this year. (For more ideas and possibilities, you can find links to my 2015, 2014, 2013 and 2012 book lists on another website.)
Here is my 2016 Christmas book list divided this year into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. The order is random. I recommend them all. Enjoy!
1. Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad
Wow! Double wow! The story of Cora and her experience with and flight from slavery. The Underground Railroad here is not a network but imagined as an actual railway replete with stations and conductors running underground north to south. We follow Cora and others (such as Ridgeway the “slave catcher”) as she escapes from Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Indiana. These episodes gives a panorama of the African-American experience well before and after the Civil War. This is fiction that provides a powerful vision and reimagining of history.
The Underground Railway is an incredibly good read. How do I know? When I finished the last page, I started again on the page one.
2. China Mieville's The City and the City
Part science-fantasy, part detective novel, and simply brilliant, entertaining, and challenging. Two cities—Beszel and Ul Qoma—situated immediately adjacent to one another, even intertwined, where residents are not allowed to notice the existence of the other and where officialdom goes to enormous lengths to maintain this unreality. Those who notice, who challenge the official order without permission, tend to disappear. And is there a third city? In this mix, we follow a classic police procedural with a terrific lead character, Inspector Borlu, who tries to solve a crime and gets deeper and deeper. You will not read a better, more challenging detective story.
Can we live side-by-side and not hear each other? Well, this is a time of parallel echo chambers on the internet. Mieville has a new book out this year called This Census Taker which looks really good, but read The City and the City first.
3. Claudia Casper's The Mercy Journal
Set in a dystopian future in Seattle and Vancouver Island ravaged by war and degradation—social and environmental—Casper creates an extraordinary lead character struggling to find meaning in a world overwhelmed by loss. A B.C. novel that you will read in one or two sessions.
4. David Graebner's The Utopia of Rules
The best book about politics I have read in years, Graebner provides a left-wing criticism of bureaucracy—both private and public. Sound exciting? You’re not sure? Well it is great, entertaining, and challenging writing, particularly for social democrats and political liberals. And did I mention it is fun? Batman comes up as do tea factories in France. Graebner argues that governments that offer market answers to social problems represent “a nightmare fusion of the worst element of bureaucracy and the worst elements of capitalism.”
Relevance to British Columbia? Well, over the decades, BC Hydro and ICBC have cut frontline staff and services while dramatically increasing the number of high-paid executives. More overseers, less doers—a mirror of the financial world. The results have been financially disastrous, undermining the very idea of crown corporations and weakening support for public action.
If you like this book (and did I mention it was an entertaining read?), try Graebner's tour de force from a few years ago (longer, still entertaining) Debt, the First 5,000 Years.
5. John Lewis and Andrew Aydin's March (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3), illustrated by Nate Powell
A three-book graphic novel about the civil rights movement co-written by one of its legends, Congressman John Lewis. Truly engaging, it serves as an object lesson in the pursuit of and obstacles to change, and the need to understand history. Accessible to all readers aged 12 to 100, it's history as a graphic novel and really works here. For a more detailed understanding of the issues (at 2,000 pages) consider Taylor Branch’s great Parting the Waters or Pillar of Fire, about America in the Martin Luther King years.
6. Patrick Phillips's Blood at the Root
A stunning corollary to John Lewis et al’s March. Blood at the Root explores how Forsyth County, Georgia, expelled its black residents in 1912 and remained all white throughout the remainder of the twentieth Century. There were 1,098 African-Americans in the county in 1912 and through immediate and continuing violence and intimidation they were all killed or expelled. In 1997, there were 39 African Americans in the county. In great detail, Phillips, who grew up in Forsyth County, tells this chilling story.
7. John Belshaw and Diane Purvey's Private Grief, Public Mourning
Over the past five years, I have visited over 100 B.C. towns. In my travels, I have passed dozens of roadside memorials, always wondering what happened, but rarely if ever stopping to look up close. Belshaw and Purvey take us there and show off a fascinating and moving social phenomenon. More than 50 such memorials are presented, most of them erected in the past 25 years. Sometimes a warning or cautionary tale to drivers, pedestrians, and passengers, they are also a claiming or reclaiming of the right to express individual and community grief in a public way. A fascinating study of our province and its people.
8. Rick Broadbent's Endurance: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Emil Zatopek
Emil Zatopek was one of the greatest Olympic runners of all times and this biography depicts his amazing life. The greatest Czech sports figure in history with four gold medals including the 5,000, 10,000, and marathon triple at the 1952 Olympics. A true national hero in communist Czechoslovakia, Zatopek supported the Prague Spring in 1968 and was stripped of all rank. He ended his work life in uranium mines, garbage collection, and other menial jobs. His story is really compelling and I believe three biographies of him have been written this year. This is the one I have read and it is truly excellent.
9. Terry Pluto's Loose Balls The Short, Wild Life of the American Basketball Association
The ABA was the short-lived alternate professional basketball league to the NBA. It existed in the last 1960s and '70 with the red, white, and blue ball. The stories of its short history and the author’s great use of the oral history make this a must-read for basketball fans. Written decades ago, I can’t believe I had missed reading it up until this year.
Married to a poet, I attend more than my share of poetry readings (and only check the NBA scores on breaks) and read more than my share of poetry books that are, shall we say, piled around the apartment. Onward!
- Kim Fu's How Festive the Ambulance
Global issues juxtaposed with intimate detail, beautiful language describing sometimes violent, awful things, this is one impressive first poetry collection.
- Jeff Steudel's Foreign Park
Steudel’s book is about the natural world, urban and remote. This is a strongly environmentalist vision depicting large and small degradations with anger and sorrow. And the poetry is kickass. Consider, for example, the excellent “Garbage Truck Trashed the Sunflower”.
- Stephen Collis's Once in Blockadia
Like Steudel, this is a poem depicting the degrading relationship between human beings and the physical world around them. Unlike Steudel, these “found” poems are relentlessly political. Often hilarious, Collis was once described “as the most dangerous poet in Canada.” This sound like a pro wrestling introduction. But he more than lives up to it here.
- Rachel Rose's Marry & Burn
A book about a relationship gone wrong. These poems could be songs, filled with chants and incantation. It's a book that could become an opera or a modernist musical. Like many under-informed readers, I sometimes ask myself what a poem means, as if I was solving a problem or filling out a Soduku puzzle on the Skytrain. Here, there is no doubt.
And finally, one last genre…
Annette Le Box's Peace is an Offering.
A children’s book with “Peace” as a character, it's an antidote of sorts for the Trump era. And just a perfect children’s book for the holiday season. I will be giving my Nephew Kieran a copy next week. (Let’s hope he doesn’t read Straight.com)
Happy Reading! Happy New Year.