The Best Books of 2016
Canadian authors pick their favourite reads
—author of Hag Seed (2016)
There are heaps of books on my floor, some read, some about to be read, some possibly not. They multiply at night when I’m not looking. It’s hard to pick favourites, but here are a few recent books that have held me to the last page:
It was a pleasure to encounter renowned SF and fantasy writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s book of essays, Words Are My Matter, and to hear her wise, informed, elegant, and occasionally testy voice discussing such joys as the early H.G. Wells classics such as The Time Machine and China Miéville’s Embassytown—which surely owes a debt to Le Guin’s own The Left Hand of Darkness, now out in a sumptuous new Penguin Galaxy edition.
The Penguin Book of the Undead edited by Scott Bruce probes the ancient roots of fantasy with pre-Christian and medieval tales of the walking, talking, burning, and life-sucking undead, and how to thwart them. Following that thread, Max Porter’s not-exactly-a-novel-nor-a-poem Grief Is the Thing with Feathers follows a small family mourning the sudden loss of wife and mother with the help of the trickster, jeerer, scavenger, and comforter fable-animal, Crow. Part eulogy, part howl, part vaudeville turn: wonderful!
Also a eulogy of sorts, and also drawing upon animal spirits, Joseph Boyden’s Wenjack traces the faltering path of the young Ojibwe boy Chanie Wenjack as he runs away from a brutal Indian residential school in the 1960s, trying to make his way through bitter October weather to the home he does not know is 600 miles away. The Manitou of the forest embody themselves in crow, owl, mouse, spider, snow goose, beaver and rabbit, and, finally, lynx, watching Chanie as his energy dies away. This is a visceral account of what it feels like to be lost in the boreal forest. Renowned graphic artist Jeff Lemire’s Secret Path—twinned with beloved musical icon Gord Downie’s album of the same name—pays tribute to the same tragic event.
Finally, Katherena Vermette’s debut novel, The Break, takes a tough, close-up look at an extended family in Winnipeg, tackling along the way a side of female life that’s often hard to acknowledge: the violence of girls and women sometimes display towards other girls and women, and the power struggles among them. In The Break, the characters may be Métis, but the motivations and emotions are surely universal. This is an accomplished writer who will go far.
—author of The Promise of Canada (2016)
I’m interested in how novelists can wriggle into hidden places in real lives from which biographers are barred because of lack of sources. So The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes, about the life of the Russian composer Shostakovich, and Marlon James’s A Brief History of Seven Killings, about a character who closely resembles Bob Marley, were two particularly interesting books this year. Amongst my other favourite novels were Joan Crate’s Black Apple (a complex story about a Blackfoot girl sent to residential school), Yann Martel’s The High Mountains of Portugal (the power of faith and history), Annie Proulx’s marvelous, sprawling Barkskins and Emma Donoghue’s The Wonder (compulsorily readable). For non-fiction, I enjoyed Dead Wake by Erik Larson, about the sinking of the Lusitania and the individuals involved; the exquisite A Number of Things by Jane Urquhart and Charles Foster’s Being a Beast, a bizarre tale of personal rewilding.
—journalism professor and author of Brown: What Being Brown in the World Today Means (To Everyone) (2016).
More than any other year, I turned to books in 2016 to help me understand and cope with its many harrowing moments, from the ongoing wars in Syria and Yemen, to the Pulse gay nightclub massacre in Florida, to the American (re)embrace of fascism. Robert F. Worth’s A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS combines historical analysis with powerful storytelling to explain what led to the Arab Spring and what came after. Kevin Patterson’s News From the Red Desert was, to me, the year’s most criminally underrated novel. Patterson pulled the multiple narratives of brown and white lives caught in the post-9/11 revenge war of Afghanistan with seamless mastery. Also among my favourites this year are Madeleine Thien’s Giller Prize-winning Do Not Say We Have Nothing and Teva Harrison’s graphic memoir In-Between Days. In their own different and gorgeous ways, both books are testimonies to the power of art in times of extremities. I’ll need some of that faith to carry me into 2017 and beyond.
—author of Into the Blizzard (2014)
My favourite book of the year was The Way of the Dishwasher by Charles Augustus Steen III. I don’t know if you can order this book, but it’s for sale ($10) at the Wallflower on Dundas Street in Toronto. It’s full of axioms that apply to becoming a dishwasher (many famous people were dishwashers, including Sun Tzu and Albert Camus), but might also help with civilian life as we attempt to clean our souls after a disastrous year. If you like fiction where you have no idea how a paragraph might end, try the very funny and whip-smart Pillow by Andrew Battershill. The book that impressed me the most—for illuminating heart, humanity, and current social conditions—is Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People.
—author of 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl (2016)
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood, an ingenious novel adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is definitely a favourite for me this year. The Tempest is an enigmatic play and Atwood’s novel fully embraces its complexities with her compelling characters, her playful and ever shimmering language, and her oh-so-brilliant plot. Her reimagining of the magician Prospero alone is worth the price of admission. Dark, wondrous, and thrilling as the best kind of theatre.
—former books editor of the Globe and Mail
Hands down, my book of the year is Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?, by the brilliant primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal. De Waal is famous for his exploration of the complex interactions within chimpanzee and bonobo societies, but here he expands his range to explore the ways in which a considerable array of creatures experience and navigate their worlds. Rich in observation, experiment, and anecdote, the book goes far beyond our usual nod to intelligence in apes and dolphins; we are also given many remarkable examples of intelligent and complex behaviours in birds, fish, even insects (wasps can recognize one another facially). René Descartes, and centuries of scientists up to the Skinnerians, have believed that animals operate almost entirely by instinct. By the end of Are We Smart Enough, you should have concluded that there is little inherently unique about human beings, and that we need to be much more mindful of the creatures with which we (often grudgingly, often murderously) share this turning sphere.
Two other books I found compelling:
Testimony by Robbie Robertson. I was riveted by this memoir from Robertson, The Band’s lead guitarist and writer of most of their memorable songs—”The Weight”, “It Makes No Difference”, “Chest Fever”—not for its account of the usual sex ‘n’ drugs that inevitably, and often numbingly, accompany rock ‘n’ roll lives, but for Robertson’s astute and often graceful insights into the making of that wonderfully heterodox conglomerate, as well as for his brisk, often loving but unblinkered portraits of the players in this world, most notably Nobel laureate Bob Dylan.
The Arab of the Future 2: A Childhood in the Middle East, 1984-1985 by Riad Sattouf. This is the second volume of graphic memoir by Sattouf, a Syrian native of mixed parentage (French mother) who has long lived in France. Sattouf, a former contributor to Charlie Hebdo (so much for cliché!), has crafted a series that is at once funny and disturbing, full of superbly observed and rendered details of a country and a family in turmoil, and a remarkable introduction to a world about which most of us have no real idea. Do read first the earlier volume, which takes Sattouf et famille from his birth in 1978 to 1984. The third volume is out in France, taking Sattouf to 1987, so I sense an epic in the making.
—author of The Tongues of Earth: New and Selected Poems (2015)
George Monbiot’s How Did We Get into This Mess?: Politics, Equality, Nature appeared in the spring of 2016, when it was still possible to hope that sunny ways would prevail in the United States and Britain as well as Canada. The year disproved those hopes and turned Monbiot’s trenchant analysis of our dysfunctional age into necessary reading. Monbiot’s essays are fierce, combative, sometimes despairing; he is wittier and more stylish than Noam Chomsky, though he shares Chomsky’s moral passion. I wish I disagreed with him more.
—author of Boo (2015)
The Orange Grove by Larry Tremblay is a fable set in an unnamed, war-torn country where parents of twin boys must choose one of their sons for a suicide mission. This brilliant novel has sold to a dozen countries, is being adapted into a play, an opera, and a movie, and has picked up awards at home and abroad. The English edition was translated by the renowned Sheila Fischman. More English Canadians need to discover this book.
—The Walrus poetry editor
A lot of great books that came out in 2016, but three of my favourite poetry titles were all by women I’ve been lucky enough to work with in one way or another. Susan Holbrook’s GG-nominated Throaty Wipes is playful, wise, and as precise as a puzzle. Suzanne Buffam’s A Pillow Book is dark and beautiful and laugh-out-loud funny. And Hoa Nguyen’s Violet Energy Ingots crackles with insightful observations and an otherworldly light.
—author of Beyond the Pale: Folklore, Family and the Mystery of our Hidden Genes (2015)
I began 2016 in the wake of a cross-country move, my books packed away in hopelessly mislabelled boxes. By early spring I’d signed on as a juror for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and my once-empty shelves quickly filled. Along with my fellow jurors, Carolyn Abraham and Steven Kimber, we whittled our list down to five and chose a winner, Deborah Campbell’s stunning A Disappearance in Damascus: A Story of Friendship and Survival in the Shadow of War, but this meant letting go of books I’d come to love, like Craig Davidson’s treacle-free account of his year as a bus driver to a group of complicated, interesting children with various disabilities, Precious Cargo: My Year Driving the Kids on School Bus 3077, Sandra Martin’s illuminating A Good Death: Making the Most of Our Final Choices, Teva Harrison’s intimate and intensely-readable, In-Between Days: A Memoir About Living with Cancer, and Joe Friesen’s The Ballad of Danny Wolfe: Life of a Modern Outlaw, an empathetic and meticulously researched story of an Indigenous street gang in Winnipeg. I cheated on non-fiction with Amy Stuart’s debut thriller Still Mine, which kept me reading (nervously) late into the night, and with picture books that I read to my children, like Sara O’Leary’s delightfully inclusive A Family is a Family is a Family and Kyo Maclear’s marvelously strange The Liszts. Finally, Erin Wunker’s Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life, reminded me that the fight for equality still needs foot soldiers and after reading her wise, and surprisingly humorous book, I’m ready to sign up.
—Cree/Dene digital media producer, organizer, hip-hop artist, and founder of RPM Records
This year, my reading has been all over the map, but the cracks and crevices of time that I’ve been able to carve out have been consumed with some standout writing on horizons of political potentiality best embodied by Michelle Tea’s sharp and inventive memoir-fiction of dystopic Californian collapse, Black Wave; Hisham Matar’s compassionate, lyrical, and deeply affecting memoir The Return; Paul Beatty’s deservedly-acclaimed satire on race and America The Sellout; Christina Sharpe’s searing and brilliant interrogation of Black life In the Wake; the beautiful jazz of Fred Moten’s latest volume of poetry, The Service Porch; Teju Cole’s excellent essay collection Known and Strange Things; and Christina Heatherton and Jordan T. Camp’s timely and incisive anthology on the carceral geographies of race and state power, Policing the Planet. But I think my favourite read of the year was Dark Pool Party, a slight and unassuming collection of poetic writings by artist Hannah Black that is both a wonderfully rhizomatic set of ruminations on self and society, and a dream-like vision of the other worlds to be found within the imaginative landscapes of her potent prose.
—author of Perish the Day, his thirteenth novel (as John Farrow), which will be published in 2017
Willem De Kooning’s Paintbrush, by newbie Kerry Lee Powell, and Swinging Through Dixie, by the venerable yet still bursting buttons Leon Rooke, powered up Canadian shorter fiction this year. Losers may be inept mystics in Powell’s world view, or a sorry drunk less than a hoot. I loved her work for the subversive comedy and was moved by the pathos enveloped by a cool language and savvy grit. The title novella in the Rooke collection is a charged comedic saunter of the hips, a sashay; and listen to how another begins, Trading with Mexico: “After the second young man was stabbed, a delegation of officials from the Municipal Office arrived at the señora’s door to inform her that such acts would no longer be tolerated.” Yeah, man. After James by Michael Helm is perplexing, brilliant, then more perplexing still. Here’s a writer who buys into an ethos that requires the reader to work. Not a trick I endorse, yet this guy comes close to winning me over. The payback won’t be worth it for a league of readers, while others will revel. Those willing to don a sophisticate’s cap, shunting aside inevitable frustrations, are likely to find long passages mesmerizing. My adjective of choice for Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains by Yasuko Thanh is spellbinding. The visit to turn of the last century Vietnam when hapless revolutionaries plot an attack by poisoning a garrison, is humid with atmosphere and fraught with sexual, social, political, and interpersonal turmoil and surprise. Here’s a wholly created world that engages the synapses as a novel should. And Anosh Irani’s The Parcel details a heart-wrenching journey through Bombay’s most notorious red light district. The struggle is grim, the sorrow of transgender sex workers palatable. The universe feels more bleak, less stable, while immersed in this tale.
—short-story writer and reviewer
“What is not happening is literary criticism,” Cynthia Ozick declares in Critics, Monsters, Fanatics and Other Literary Essays, one of my favourite books of 2016. The essays seem to have been composed in a kind of post-apocalyptic landscape, where Ozick picks through the scorched remains of America’s once-vibrant literary civilization. I suppose I’m part of the illiterate, screen-bedazzled generation in whom Ozick sees little redeeming value, a generation that hasn’t read any Lionel Trilling or enough Henry James. Plus I’m Canadian. But while I bridle at the book’s more absolute proclamations, Ozick is a wonderfully extreme companion. I would also be remiss if I didn’t take this chance to throw in my lot with Zadie Smith’s Swing Time. Combining her capacious intellect with the best influences of Elena Ferrante and Norman Rush, Swing Time marks a major advance in Smith’s art, which means she’s now way ahead. We’re accustomed to over-praise and over-condemnation, but this is an instance in which a novel deserves excessive celebration.
—author of The Lonely Hearts Hotel (2016)
Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall was so strange and surprising. It delighted me on every page. It recounts how identities merge so that two people can essentially become one. It had the most peculiar descriptions of love. There is a man and woman who faint every time they meet. And when they marry, rain, a black fingernail, a wedding dress on fire, and a stray dog try to warn them that the union is doomed. Fate plays magical tricks in this book, and the writing is just as deft and circuitous and inevitable. I also quite loved Emma Donoghue’s assured work of historical fiction, The Wonder. It takes great imagination to have to courage to describe a child in the circumstances that Donoghue puts her small heroine in. It touches on the exploitation of the female body and the idea that it never quite belongs to the girl who inhabits it. The subject matter of the novel extends from its historical context to modern day anorexia and self-harm.
—author of Killarnoe (2007)
Vivek Shraya’s first book of poems, Even This Page Is White, impressed me for what the book talked about—that is, candid and nuanced insight about living in a raced body—rather than for how it talked about it. I was trained to understand poetry as an elite thing—a performance of linguistic virtuosity, or of testing language’s limits. Shraya’s poems don’t really do that: they aren’t interested in The Sentence or metaphors-as-poetic-vision, they just speak raw, and months after reading Shraya’s book I’m still struck by its power. Poets like Shraya and Rupi Kaur frighten capital-L literary poets because their work proves that poetry can be very popular. Erin Wunker’s friendly, hip Notes From a Feminist Killjoy will arm you with speaking points to counter the next four years of thinkpieces that consider the merits of consent-free pussy-grabbing. Soraya Peerbaye’s Tell is from 2015 but I read it this year when it was up for the Griffin – —it’s a lyric tour-de-force, a documentary must-read. Michael Prior’s début Model Disciple impressed the heck out of me: his “Tamagotchi” poem slays my undergrads every time. On my bedside table are the books I’m dying to finish when I’m done marking: Kathy Page’s Giller-longlisted The Two of Us, Susan Juby’s Leacock-prize-winner Republic of Dirt, and Kamal Al-Solaylee’s truth-to-power memoir, Brown.
—author of The M Word: Conversations about Motherhood (2014)
My list of favourites from 2016 is topped with Zoe Whittall’s The Best Kind of People, which is timely, gripping, and I’m still recovering from the devastation of its final sentence. I also loved Cordelia Strube’s On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light, which broke my heart, but was just as funny as it was sad. Also Catherine Leroux’s The Party Wall, which twists the novel form into impossible, incredible shapes. And Little Labors, Rivka Galchen’s “pillow book” inspired by motherhood; Iain Reid’s I’m Thinking of Ending Things; Katherena Vermette’s The Break; and The Dancehall Years, by Joan Haggerty. In terms of books, at least, it’s been a very good year.
—author of Guy: Or Why Women Love Me (2016)
I read a couple of books that came out in 2016 but only one really stands out and that’s Dear Mr. M by Herman Koch. With its mysterious narrator, the shifting point of view and an unsolved story of a murder, it’s definitely not the kind of book that you’ll have to give up after fifty pages (generosity one should extend to most books) because you just . . . can’t. Bonus delight for writers who read as the book contains the most accurate and hilarious depictions of life of an author, including deathly library readings and answering thoughtful questions such as, “Do you write in the morning or in the afternoon?”
—author of News From the Red Desert (2016)
Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a novel of omnivorous interests: classical music and mathematics and Maoist political philosophies—but it lives especially vibrantly within the two families whose stories it recounts. The losses, the heartbreak, the disappointments and the betrayals that are the expression of political tumult on the micro scale illuminate the macro scale of the Cultural Revolution and the Tiananmen Massacre. Neither perspective is sacrificed for the other; instead they reinforce one another. Thien’s secret weapon and her gift as a writer, lies in her sentences. They have a granular power that seize the reader and pull her through the dense, interwoven plotlines of this resonant, heartbreakingly beautiful book. We will be reading this book for the next century.
—author of Model Disciple (2016)
This year, I’ve been marvelling over Ruth Ozeki’s The Face: A Time Code. Ozeki, who divides her time between British Columbia and New York, contributes a fascinating entry to Restless Press’s ongoing series, in which contemporary writers reflect on the face that stares back at them from the mirror. An ordained Buddhist priest, Ozeki begins her book by meditating on an ancient Zen koan (“What did your face look like before your parents were born?”) and proceeds to expand her inquiry to encompass her experience of growing up as a mixed-race woman in post-World War II America: “Eleven years prior to my birth . . . My mother’s people were killing my father’s people, and vice versa, and at a very young age I was aware of this enmity and aware, too, that I embodied it.” Ozeki embraces Montaigne’s sense of the essay as an explorative, epistemologically uncertain space, and the book moves digressively through her decision to adopt a nom de plume, her relationship to her own author photo, and the ways in which the-face-as-mask reflects aspects of Japanese Noh theatre. The result is poignant, entertaining, and, more often than not, wise.
I’ve also been trying to keep up with all the memorable Canadian poetry books published in 2016, including debuts from Katherine Leyton, Ashley-Elizabeth Best, Richard Kelly Kemick, Elee Kraljii Gardiner, Jana Prikryl, Vincent Colistro, and Adèle Barclay—not to mention volumes from more-established names such as Suzanne Buffam, Steven Heighton, Carmine Starnino, Jordan Abel, Matt Rader, and Alexandra Oliver. In particular, I’ve found myself fascinated and challenged by Nyla Matuk’s Stranger, a collection filled with uncanny travelogues, ekphrastic allusions, and psychoanalytical candour. Matuk has a keen eye for the fraying material edges of the social order, and I can’t shake lines like “I want to see Myself the way you saw Me. / Yet there are other worlds. / Fields burning, / horses frightening,” or, in a poem inspired by Hannah Arendt, “Those leaves / in the sunshine remind me of a kind of ending, but not death. Only / the idea of it, arbitrarily and ordinarily rushing through us, without / interference.” Jacob McArthur Mooney also writes about Arendt in his latest collection, Don’t Be Interesting, a tome by turns satirical and sincere, whose best poems often balance on their tonal ambiguity. Mooney examines post-modernity’s impulses to collapse past, present and future, and his lines brim with cleverly repurposed idioms and careful observations.
—author of The Naturalist (2016)
It’s been a beautiful year for books. Here are five stunners that come to mind: for its clear-eyed, open-hearted evocation of a community, The Break by Katherena Vermette; for its mythic complexity, its living strata of love and its chimps, The High Mountains of Portugal by Yann Martel; for its first-person hymn to all manner of frontiers, Days Without End by Sebastian Barry; for its finely-wrought portrait of a flaneur at a loss, Involuntary Bliss by Devon Code; for its music, on every conceivable level, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien.
—author of The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (2014)
Three books stand out to me as 2016 comes to a close: Listen, Liberal!, by Thomas Frank, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and What a City Is For by Matt Hern. In very different ways each of these books wrestles with the shortcomings of liberalism (or neoliberalism) and the need for credible, radical alternatives to the current order—alternatives that sadly seem even farther away in the wake of Trump’s presidential victory. Frank tackles the problem head on, offering a stinging indictment of the Democrats’ transformation over the last forty years into a party of elitist and out-of-touch market-loving meritocrats, disconnected from and even contemptuous of the concerns and needs of everyday people. Taylor’s wide-ranging and electrifying book takes the reader through the history of civil rights and racialized mass incarceration, with a searing focus on the failings of the black political class who have sacrificed more transformative aims of justice and liberation for a seat at the table of power. Finally, Vancouver’s inimitable and invaluable activist-scholar Matt Hern uses Portland, Oregon as a case study of gentrification and settler colonial development, exposing and analyzing the violence and dispossession that attends the all-too-familiar explosion of hipster food trucks, bike lanes, and rents, while outlining a new inspiring model of post-ownership, cooperative, inclusive urban life.
—author of The Pigheaded Soul: Essays and Reviews on Poetry and Culture (2013)
I will read anything if the sentences are good enough; style beats subject matter—or, more accurately, buoys it. (Style, of course, doesn’t mean “beautiful writing” or Michael Ondaatje.) Many have already praised the memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, which came to paperback in April. It’s a brilliant book about dimly-lit depths: that subculture of people—mostly men—who keep an eye on surf forecasts (these are a thing), and who can wax opaquely on such arcana as board design or a particular coast’s pathology. Previously, this world lacked its ambassador; he is now, and for all time, William Finnegan, a staff writer at The New Yorker, once known mainly for war writing. Finnegan faced an enormous technical challenge: over hundreds of pages try to pin down and describe the behavior of water—and the men who make it their obsession—without boring the uninitiated. But like Montaigne in a wet suit, he pulls it off, again and again. Barbarian Days channels one man’s lived experience of waves into a work of art.
—author of How Does A Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun? (2014)
In 2016, I stopped drinking and I sought out another escape: reading. Among my favourite novels were Mischling by Affinity Konar, an off-kilter book about twins imprisoned at Auschwitz that made me weep; Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey, an American translator’s madcap adventures in Brazil; Waste by Andrew F. Sullivan, which delivers violence, desperation, and a lion on the loose in an Ontario town; and Sarong Party Girls by Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, a dark postcolonial comedy about young women in Singapore. Stand-out non-fiction was Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West, which serves feminist realness in our social media troll-ridden times and I’m Judging You: The Do-Better Manual by Luvvie Ajayi, essays with all the political fire of Ta-Nehisi Coates shellacked with pop culture magic. And finally, Serpentine Loop by Elee Kraljii Gardiner, because how can you go wrong with poetry and figure skating?
—author of MxT (2014)
I haven’t read the usual number of books this year, but several have stood out for quality of engagement including Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First and Mona Awad’s 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl, Anne Carson’s Float, Lisa Robertson’s 3 Summers, Anne Boyer’s Garments Against Women, Joe Denham’s Regeneration Machine, Renee Gladman’s Calamities. The Collected Poems of Adrienne Rich is a necessary tour of twentieth century lyric feminist poetics. A few titles from Metatron, the small Montreal press, have also been hard to put down—Sara Sutterlin’s I Wanted to Be the Knife and Frankie Barnet’s An Indoor Kind of Girl in particular. Can I mention a children’s book? Cloth Lullaby, the story of Louise Bourgeois, by Amy Novesky is a big hit at our house.
—author of Strike Anywhere: Essays, Reviews & Other Arsons (2016)
Hammer Is the Prayer, Christian Wiman’s selected poems, which span the 30 years of his practice, is a monument to a kind of career in poetry that’s all but impossible now. Wiman opted out of grad school, is a devout Christian, writes formally exquisite lyrics, was the exacting editor of Poetry when it published more criticism than verse, and is a funny and fierce critic himself. In other words, all of his attributes are now liabilities in the politics of the poetry-industrial complex, a mill for which poems themselves are but the grist. But his almost impossible life—one which is now shadowed by a terminal cancer diagnosis—has produced lyrics that are equally unlikely, like these from “Dust Devil”: “by broken heart / for I have learned this art // of flourishing / vanishing // wherein to live / is to move // cohesion / illusion // wild untouchable toy / called by a boy // God’s top / in a time when time stopped.”
Katie Roiphe’s mystifyingly beautiful new book, The Violet Hour, is a look at the deaths of six masterful writers: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Dylan Thomas, Maurice Sendak and James Salter. It’s a satisfying mash-up of so many genres: biography, obituary, literary criticism, psychoanalysis, new journalism. The trick of the book is that by narrowing the aperture through which we glimpse these writers, we get to see the narrowed lenses through which they looked back at their own lives. Sontag was so convinced of her own permanence—a misapprehension shared by her readers—that her eventual death after a long battle with cancer came as something of a surprise to her. Freud lashed out anyone who was sentimental about his impending death, which Roiphe psychoanalyses as the great doctor’s own protesting too much. When she analyzes his ubiquitous cigar—which Freud himself famously decided was off-limits to analysis—it turns out to be a key to understanding him. About Dylan Thomas, who raged so famously at the dying of the light, she writes: “It seems if you are afraid or preoccupied with something for long enough, you begin to develop a feeling toward it not dissimilar to love.” Roiphe’s last looks make the case that you somehow become most like yourself just before you’re never yourself again.
—author of The Candidate: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail (2016)
This was the year I discovered the Austrian novelist Robert Seethaler. Seethaler, who came to writing late in his life, is a revelation. His novel A Whole Life is the one North American readers will have come to first. The story is not much; a man comes of age and passes the better part of the first seventy years of the last century on the flank of one of the Austrian Alps. He is crippled. He gets work. He falls in love. The affair ends unfortunately. But around him the world changes, tectonically: industry arrives, then electricity. War happens and passes. The skiers and the highways and the BMWs come. The story is of changing times swirling around one, humble, ordinary man and what we feel before Seethaler’s pithy recounting of a whole life is humility and awe. Seethaler’s language is perfect. His short sentences, simple and unadorned, are almost fabular in tone. And he is a master of the implied, inferring extraordinary events without invoking them directly—the affluence of the late twentieth century in A Whole Life and, in his novel The Tobacconist, the Second World War and the Holocaust. A young man comes in from the same Alp landscape of A Whole Life to work at a tobacconist’s shop in Vienna in the late nineteen thirties. The tobacconist is a Jewish Austrian army veteran of the First World War, with one false leg. Sigmund Freud is a regular customer. The boy falls in love with a woman he does not understand to be a prostitute, one of an accumulating number of victims of lousy circumstance and the political tempest launching marauding brown shirts onto the streets. Kristallnacht happens and does not go well for the tobacconist, whose shop is closed. The war is another of Seethaler’s dizzying absences. We are devastated and feel it viscerally.
—author of Injun (2016)
Over the last few years, I’ve been trying to re-think my reading practices. And, recently I’ve been struck by the idea from a friend to imagine what it might be like to read Indigenously. Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve quite figured out exactly how to do that or what that really even means, but there are a few books that stand out for me in this renewed reading practice that includes (no surprise here) only Indigenous books. The first one on my list is Louise Bernice Halfe’s new book (I’ve been reading her work for years!) Burning in this Midnight Dream. Halfe’s work is an exceptional journey through (and response to) the Truth and Reconciliation process. Likewise, The Red Files by Lisa Bird-Wilson is a stunning work that takes an archival approach to the documents (and documentations) of residential schools. And, finally, Gregory Scofield’s Witness, I Am takes on the extraordinarily difficult (and necessary) task of writing about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. These books are all highly challenging but also deeply rewarding. I would definitely recommend them.
—the owner of Flying Books
Some of my favourite books of 2016 came out early in the year, starting with Garth Greenwell’s exquisite What Belongs to You, which is about desire, and how love redeems what desire drives us to do. Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Café vividly portrays Sartre, Beauvoir, and Camus, among others, as they lived and loved and wrote and debated—reenergizing their rich ideas about radical freedom. I found Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First completely bewitching. It’s a heady portrait of the audacious Duchess of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, “Mad Madge” Cavendish, the first best-selling woman writer whose Hunger-Games-like fashions, bizarre medical “cures,” and refusal to hold her tongue made her the first tabloid celebrity.
Spring brought two debut novels that play intelligently with the thriller genre: In Still Mine, author Amy Stuart’s tight plot skips the rape scenes seen in so many recent thrillers featuring missing women, and instead gives us strong female characters, who pull together for an outcome they—and you—don’t see coming. Iain Reid’s trippy I’m Thinking of Ending Things starts off as a road-trip book, but then weirdnesses accrue, and you end up questioning the nature of identity. A thriller with a high “whoa” factor.
Three summer books are still with me. I love how Frans de Waal’s Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? patiently debunks human misconceptions about animal cognitive abilities. The First Wife, by Mozambican writer Paulina Chiziane is a wise and funny novel about a woman who discovers she’s in a polygamous marriage, seeks out her rivals, and ends up befriending and supporting them. The main character in Jade Sharma’s surprisingly comical Problems juggles a heroin addiction, a failed extra-marital affair, and a failed marriage—and manages to be likeable!
This fall brought books that take aim at the normative: Mark Greif’s Against Everything amazes me with its ingenious twists and turns of argument. Being against everything means refusing stultifying norms and trends in popular culture, politics, and contemporary life. In The Party Wall, Catherine Leroux arranges her characters in pairs and alters their relationships with traumatizing experiences, while tenderly questioning the norms that define what those relationships can be. It knocked me out.
Michael Helm’s novel After James rewired my brain. Each of its three parts introduces a puzzle that only close contemplation of art can solve. One of the last novels legendary editor Ellen Seligman worked on before she died this year, I enjoyed thinking about her guiding hand while reading this engrossing book.
—author of Ellen in Pieces (2014)
Actually, the whole year wasn’t so lousy, but the lousiness of the latter half of 2016 has stunk it all out retroactively. If I flap a towel hard enough, though, and clear away some of the icky 2016 particulate still hanging in the air (will it ever clear?), I see myself back in June lying on a chaise longue in Montreal reading a book I adored. There I am, enthralled and breaking off every few pages to laugh out loud. It’s Kerry Lee Powell’s story collection Willem de Kooning’s Paintbrush, a raunchy jubilation of tramps and low-lifes written in prose that rivals de Kooning in energy and surprise. For example: “The morning was cold and fine and all the leaf-choked gutters sparkled with bullet casings.” Back in the bliss of June on the chaise longue I was innocent of the irony to come. I loved Powell’s characters, but they are the very folks who, if they ever bothered to exercise their franchise, would vote for Trump. Oh, well. I’ve always said that reading and writing is an exercise in compassion.