2015 books

January 18, 2016 § 7 Comments

There were a lot of 2015 books that I loved and really wanted to write about but just never managed it. And that’s ok, I’ve decided. There were books like Miriam Toews’ All My Puny Sorrows (had no idea where to start talking about it even though it was one of my top books of the year), Jonathan Gibbs’ Randall (felt as though I needed more art-world expertise to comment knowledgeably), Ravenscrag by Alain Farah, translated by Lazer Lederhendler (needed to read it at least once more and preferably three times) and Anne Garréta’s fabulous Sphinx, which I still hope to write about in detail, so I won’t talk about it here.

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So here are my thoughts–definitely not critical, definitely not reviews–of four books from 2015. Three are Canadian and one is German. The first one is Carellin Brooks’ One Hundred Days of RainI’m a huge fan of BookThug fiction. Both their English-language books and their translations are always interesting and provocative. Just last season we had Jess Taylor’s Pauls (from which a great story was printed in CNQ 93), The Plotline Bomber of Innisfree by Jason Massey, and Grand Menteur by Jean Marc Ah-Sen (my review of which will be published in February at Full Stop. And then there’s Jacob Wren, whose work I have inexplicably not read. But that will change in 2016, when he publishes Rich and Poor.

One Hundred Days of Rain is the moving story of a post-breakup life. The narrator and her young son keep plodding on, through Vancouver’s endless rain and grey clouds, through difficult times and distressing incidents. It’s a story told in long fragments, with the short and choppy sentences conveying the narrator’s frame of mind. The first new situation she encounters is being arrested after a fight with her partner, being photographed and fingerprinted and eventually being barred from their home and contacting her spouse.

This is a life that has come apart, and yet still demands certain routines of the narrator as she deals with the constant obstacles to rebuilding something resembling her old life. The skill of using the weather as a meditative device without resorting to pathetic fallacy is one of the book’s great achievements, along with its beautiful depiction of how interior and exterior bounce off each other. It makes me very keen to read Carellin Brook’s wonderfully titled Fresh Hell: Motherhood in Pieces.

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One morning last summer I woke up in the middle of the night with the lights on and Elisabeth de Mariaffi’s The Devil You Know under the bedclothes. And a good job it was that I did fall asleep on page 10, or I’d have been up all night devouring it. Women should read it because it’s a shiveringly good portrayal of the little accommodations we make every single day, the unexpected noises we are aware of, the decisions we make based on what seems—and sometimes feels—like irrational instinct. (I know there are women who don’t feel like this, who feel that their lack of concern about walking home across a park at 3am makes them special is nothing special, so congratulations to them on having never once been scared by a man, never once having stopped breathing from terror of what might happen next.) And men should read it because it’s such a startlingly good account of what it’s like to feel that kind of jumpiness.

I’m not going to summarise the plot, but in brief, The Devil You Know is a mystery/thriller, but it wears its genre very lightly. I mean that in the sense of feeling as though resolution and answers wouldn’t even have been necessary, because both the writing and the characters were so powerful that the plot seemed almost unnecessary. It’s set against the backdrop of the horrific real-life Paul Bernardo serial-murder case of the late eighties and early nineties; if you’re not Canadian, start by reading this excellent memoir piece by Stacey May Fowles. I’m only a thriller reader occasionally, and often disappointed when I do pick up the year’s top picks, but The Devil You Know deserves to be as well known as Gone Girl (it’s also way better written).

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The last of my Canadian choices is Alison Pick‘s wonderful memoir, Between Gods, about discovering her Jewish ancestry and the hidden stories of her family. This is a truly fascinating and moving book that dives into the debates about nature versus nurture or blood versus culture in very personal and sophisticated ways. Although Pick was never especially Christian in anything more than a cultural sense, she feels the pull towards Judaism. Her depictions of how her search for the right God, and what wanting a God even means, affect her life and her family are honest and compelling. One of my favourite non-fiction titles of 2015.

And finally, The Marvel of Biographical Bookkeeping by Francis Nenik (translator Katy Derbyshire). I loved this tiny volume from Readux Press (you might have been hearing good things about Joanna Walsh’s Grow a Pair, also published by Readux and on which I am keen to get my hands). This story features two real literary characters, Ivan Blatny and Nicholas Moore. The first half of the book tells their stories, in parallel and on facing pages, the correspondences of the language used for each character mimicking the correspondences and coincidences of their lives.

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The Moore tale begins:

When the critic George Steiner looked through the entries for the Sunday Times Baudelaire translation competition he was judging in 1968, he was no doubt a little surprised. Someone had submitted more than thirty versions of the same poem.

And here’s Blatny’s opening:

When the journalist Jürgen Serke came across a slim man with a small cut on his freshly shaven cheek in St. Clements Hospital in Ipswich in 1981, he was no doubt a little surprised. The man had been declared dead more than thirty years previously.

The two men were both twentieth century poets who started off well before being forgotten through a combination of unfortunate personal circumstance and changing tastes. The second half of the book is made up of the correspondence between the two men, which began in 1962 when Blatny wrote to Moore, whom he did not know. The letters reveal how their lives progress, and their attitudes to the disappearance of their early promise and fame.

I’m rather fond of slightly experimental fiction about real characters (like Harry Karlinsky’s The Stonehenge Letters), particularly scientific or literary ones. It would be easy to look up how far this little volume was based on fact, but I prefer to enjoy the fiction and the not-knowing, particularly when it comes in such a formally innovative package. This book costs almost nothing; try to get hold of a copy if you can.

Diverse December

January 5, 2016 § Leave a comment

As 2015 is now over, I’ve been able to add up my reading numbers for the year. In total, I read 88 books. Of these, 19 were by non-white authors (a category that seems even more problematic after reading Ta-Nehisi Coates). Eight of these were in December; so eleven over the rest of the year. Not a great tally. For some sort of comparison, my #readwomen numbers were 44 women, 40 men. That’s a category I never pay attention to at the moment of reading since my numbers are almost always evenly split. Clearly Diverse December was something I needed to do. With the exception of Farzana Doctor (library copy), all these books were already on my shelves; I just needed a reason to move them right up to the top of the TBR. So thanks to Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby for inspiring me.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This book sort of blew my mind. It was like being on the other side of one of those articles that say, Hey, men, just thought you might want to know that this is what it’s like being a woman Every Single Day. The articles that talk about minimising and brushing things off and being polite, and that open the eyes of even the most feminist of men. Reading this book is neither easy nor comfortable (and will send you off to find out about other things too) but it’s important. Structured as a letter to Coates’ fifteen-year-old son and containing all the history and street smarts he wants to be sure to pass on, Between the World and Me is one of the best non-fiction books I’ve read this year, and its place on so many best-of-2015 lists is well justified.

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All Inclusive by Farzana Doctor

This is Canadian writer Doctor’s third novel. She writes really well about families and relationships. All Inclusive is about Ameera, a travel rep working in Mexico who is getting into trouble for sleeping with the tourists–couples only. Her mother is white Canadian and her father—whom she never met—was from India, but died the day after her conception in the 1985 Air India bomb, something that neither Ameera nor her mother know when the novel opens. It’s a moving and well-plotted story, with lots of holiday sex (it sounds incongruous with the subject matter but it works). For another recent fictional take on the Air India disaster, read Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.

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By Night the Mountain Burns by Juan Tomás Ávila Laurel (translated by Jethro Soutar)

This is the first book I’ve ever read from Equatorial Guinea, Africa’s only Spanish-speaking country. It’s the tale of a childhood spent on an isolated Atlantic island, a place where religion and superstition mingle with fascinating results. As devastating as Job’s tribulations and the plagues of Egypt combined, the island’s tragedies are brutal and relentless. Told in part like a folk tale and translated well by Jethro Soutar, By Night the Mountain Burns works towards a moving conclusion.

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Esperanza Street by Niyati Keni

The second And Other Stories title on my Diverse December list, this is possibly the first book I’ve read set in the Philippines (a theme seems to be emerging…). Keni is a physician who was born in London to Indian parents, so the choice of the Philippines is intriguing. I didn’t know this until after I’d finished reading, but I did notice that the novel doesn’t fetishise poverty and rose-tint hardship in the way some novelists do when writing about their parents’ country of origin: perhaps writing about a different country altogether makes this easier. Joseph, the main character, is a young houseboy in the household of Mary Morelos, a widow whose left-wing convictions put her at odds with many of Esperanza Street’s richer inhabitants. When a local man wants to develop the street, destroying businesses and homes in the process, she comes into conflict with much of the neighbourhood. Esperanza Street is a well put together novel that combines socioeconomics, politics, family relationships and personal responsibility, and allows its characters to be both familiar and unfamiliar to western readers.

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The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War by Sumia Sukkar

Sukkar was just twenty-one when she wrote this portrayal of an autistic boy as the Syrian war gathers pace around him and his family. You’ll have to forgive a slightly tedious oversignposting of autism in the early pages, but you really should forgive it because this book is quite devastating. It has had extremely little press attention, as evidenced by the fact that my own Three Rs interview with Sukkar is on the first page of Google results of a search for the author’s name. I believe it was the first novel about the conflict when it was published (Eyewear, 2014); it might well still be the only one. When most of the mentions we hear about Syrian people are to do with refugee camps and asylum seeking, it’s good to be reminded that there was a before—and also to see how quickly and violently a comfortable existence can be turned upside down.

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The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King

A fantastic primer on Indigenous issues from one of North America’s great popular scholars. This should be required reading for all newcomers to Canada, all high-school students, and pretty much the entire adult population. King has a breezy, funny style that makes the difficult subject matter penetrable and comprehensible. He does not call the book a history, so let’s say that it’s an incredibly important back story that adds valuable context to our understanding of events from the beginnings of colonialism in North America to the position we find ourselves in today.

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Meatspace by Nikesh Shukla

This was actually a reread; I read this book when it first came out and fully intended to review it here, but life got in the way. Nikesh Shukla is the writer whose comments about the lack of diversity in the books being given away for World Book Night prompted Dan Lipscombe and Naomi Frisby to set up Diverse December in the first place (and it has now become @readdiverse2016).

Meatspace is the story of the hilarious collision between our online worlds and meatspace (formerly known as IRL, or in real life). It’s not the decade-old story of whether we are giving up too much of reality by spending so much time immersed in supposedly virtual worlds, but an exploration of what our online personas mean, how important they are professionally and personally, and what happens when people and incidents that you hope are safely confined to one of the worlds come crashing into the other. It’s funny and moving and poignant, and has an impressively light touch with the many political and difficult personal themes it touches.

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 The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov (translated by Andrew Blomfield)

When I started reading for Diverse December it didn’t occur to me that a book from Uzbekistan would be on my list. I pulled Peirene Press’s The Dead Lake by Hamid Ismailov from the shelf because I initially ignored the “ov” at the end of the last name and made assumptions accordingly. But Ismailov’s story is a fascinating (and sad) one. He is the most widely published Uzbek writer, but his books are banned—even mentioning his name is likely to get you into trouble. He’s lived in exile in the UK since 1992.

The Dead Lake is set in the Kazakh steppe around a former nuclear test site. Yerzhan, the main character, moves from child to 27-year-old adult over the course of this non-chronological novel. The cumulative effect of the 468 nuclear explosions that were carried out at this test site between 1949 and 1989 exceeded the power of the Hiroshima bomb by a factor of 2500. The story is simply and effectively told, and is incredibly powerful. It’s the sort of thing Peirene does exceptionally well, and the sort of thing we need more of in English.

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