This year I changed my system and it might have messed a few things up. The system was for tracking my reading. I’ve been a really prolific reader this year, but it turns out that I didn’t necessarily record all the books I read, so even though I count at least 50 books, I know there were more. Often after I publish this list, people say, “Hmmm…I haven’t read any of those.” This year feels like it could be even more of that than usual because my reading formed a kind of self-directed learning for the most part, with a bunch of good murder mysteries on the side for fun.
Let me point you first to some really good authors that fit in that latter category: I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Charles Finch’s mysteries – they’re Victorian mysteries, they’re well-researched and have enjoyable characters. I also continue to be a fan of Louise Penny’s mysteries – and her latest book, The Kingdom of the Blind, is one of the better ones. I’ve begun reading Ann Cleeves’ books and my experience has been mixed: I really like her Shetland books and I don’t really care for her Vera books.
I also want to give a shoutout to three friends who published (or are about to publish) brilliant books: Kristen Ciccarelli’s The Caged Queen is a sequel or companion book to her YA debut novel, The Last Namsara. Both are terrific reads. My writers’ group friend, Pamela Mulloy’s debut novel. The Deserters came out this year – it’s atmospheric and moving and well worth the read. Another writers’ group friend, Erin Bow, is a writer worth searching for – she’s a poet and physicist who brings those talents to writing terrific novels that are aimed at YA readers but could be relished by anyone. In 2019, her middle grade novel, Stand on the Sky is coming out. Erin describes it as Where the Red Fern Grows + a happy ending. It’s worth preordering!
I’m going to count those preceding titles as #10 on my Top 10 list and move on to the rest, starting with #9:
9. Las Aventures des Inspector Cabillot. Yes, you read that right. And no, I didn’t even finish the book, but it completely merits being included on this list because it’s so innovative. The author, Diego Marani, is a linguist and translator at the European Union. He developed a language he calls Europanto – a language described by a book reviewer in The Times as being developed by taking “a firm grounding of English and French, toss in chunks of German, Spanish and Italian; garnish with a dash of Flemish and Euroslang; pour the contents into a language liquidiser and serve when thoroughly pureed.” I brought this book with me on a summer adventure to Italy and France – but I didn’t read too much of it because I found myself speaking my own version of Europanto. Nevertheless, the book is a fun linguistic puzzle which is surprisingly readable. I stopped not because of the language but because the plot was so over-the-top farcical.
8. The Bonhoeffer Reader. Troubled by the move toward fascism in the US and other parts of the world, I remembered Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a 20th century German Lutheran pastor who was implicated and possibly involved in an attempt on the life of Hitler, despite being a pacifist. I decided to spend some time reading Bonhoeffer’s writing and letters this summer, especially those from the 1930s, as a way of understanding how I might understand the times we’re in. A lot of the book was heavy-going but still really insightful.
7. Generous Spaciousness. Our church which had a traditional understanding of marriage and sexuality engaged in a listening process this year to consider whether that was a position we still held. I read countless books on the topic, but this one, by Canadian Wendy VanderWal Gritter, came the closest to where I also came on the issue: finding a third way that honours a diversity of beliefs, making generous space for varying experiences and interpretations of the Bible. Her approach is complex and refreshingly not reductive. I recommend it highly to anyone who’s wrestling with this.
6. Gone to an Aunt’s. Here’s where things get quite segmented. This year I wrote a book with a main character who worked in a crisis pregnancy centre. Somehow I heard about this book, and while it only slightly overlaps with my own story, I was really captivated by this well-written book, by Canadian journalist, Anne Petrie, who includes her own story as a young pregnant woman among the stories of others who were sent away – allegedly to an aunt’s, but actually to a birth home—in the 1940s to 1960s. This is an area of Canadian life I didn’t know and it’s really well-told and sympathetic, with moving first-hand accounts.
5. Life in Code – I’m writing a book with a character who is a coder, so I went looking for books by people who explained coding not to wannabe coders but to people interested in it from outside. This book by early coder Ellen Ullman is nearly lyrical at times. It’s a series of essays that takes us through the last thirty or so years, including some thoughts on Y2K written in 1999. Fascinating writer, even for those not interested in code at all. I started this book on a plane and could not put it down.
4. Daily Prayer by Padraig O’Tuama. Early this year I attended a writing conference and signed up for a workshop with an amazing title. It did not live up to its promise, so much so that I actually walked out of it. As did another woman. Our eyes met as we exited the classroom. When I told her it hadn’t been what I expected, she suggested that instead I attend a workshop by Padraig O’Tuama. I slipped into the workshop he was leading. O’Tuama is the spiritual leader of Corrymeela, a reconciliation community in northern Ireland. He’s also a brilliant poet. I left his workshop with my jaw on the floor, after hearing him read his writing. I walked straight to the book table, and bought this book, which offers poem-prayers for every day of the month. His writing is fresh and tender as springtime. Follow him on Twitter. Buy his books.
3. The Art of Gathering. One of my best friends recommended this book to me and it kind of changed my life. Not deep down but in terms of how I do certain things. The author, Priya Parker, is a facilitator but her book isn’t just about how to plan better meetings, but how to plan better events in all aspects of our life. My biggest takeaway was that most party hosts tend to be too casual, letting their guests set the tone. Parker shows how hosts don’t have to be bossy by contrast, but can create events that are memorable and joyous by how they lead them. I’ve tested this out, and it works. Really interesting book with practical tips.
2. Braiding Sweetgrass. Another recommendation from a friend, this book is a beautiful, thoughtful series of essays. With a poet’s attention to detail, and a botanist’s training, a mother’s heart, and an Indigenous understanding, Robin Wall Kimmerer has written what Elizabeth Gilbert rightly describes as a hymn of love to the world. This is a book I will return to again and again. It has taught me well.
1. The Night Circus. This book somehow is what would happen if Harry Potter and The English Patient had a baby. It’s a wonderful and wondrous novel that made me think and sleuth and feel and stay up really really late reading. It offers multiple, eventually converging points of view, delicious details of a circus that suddenly appears and only opens at night, and a competition between two magicians whose best tricks are human and not altogether certain they want to be used in the rivalry. It’s about love and loss. Most of all, it’s about being taken along by a wonderful writer on a fantastical journey. Enjoy!
How about you? What have you been reading this year?
‘Tis the season for reflecting on my annual reading. This year I’ve felt like I’m doing a couple of self-led courses of study (Midlife and empty nest! Story structure! Racial justice!) as well as simply reading for pleasure. I did a poorer job of tracking my reading this year: usually I keep a running list in the back of my journal but when I switched journals midway through the year, I also switched methods. So it is altogether possible that one of my better books of the year isn’t mentioned. I know I have the best book, though, so don’t worry about that.
As usual, there’s no exact order to the list of books except for the number one book, but here is my countdown.
10. The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel is the book that Hidden Figures wanted to be. It follows the lives of the women who worked in astronomy at the Harvard Observatory in the late 19th and early 20th century, transforming how we understand the universe itself. I began this book as part of a way of connecting with our middle child who is going to university in Boston: I deliberately went looking for Boston-related books. (A book that fit in this category that sadly didn’t fully live up to its fascinating premise was The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl. It’s possibly worth reading but not worth a top 10 space.) Sobel, however, is a wonderful writer whose books I have read before. She tells a story well, and in this case made me care deeply about the women and men of the Observatory, and the massive contributions and sacrifices they made.
9. The Empty Nest: 31 Parents Tell the Truth about Relationships, Love, and Freedom After the Kids Fly the Coop, edited by Karen Stabiner. I actually read this book last December after I posted my Top 10 list for 2016, and to say it revolutionized my life would not be an understatement. I loved that this book offered a wide variety and diversity of experiences about kids leaving home, rather than being either a memoir of one person’s experience or, worse, a how-to-let-go-for-dummies type of book. This multiplicity of perspectives allowed me to find myself in a few places, to find parents who felt as I did, as well as to say how many different ways this process can happen. A friend of mine says, you always cry when your kids leave home, but often for very different reasons. The revolutionary aspect of the book for me came with the idea from one contributor who learned from her father when she moved across the country that he refused to be peripheral to her life just because she was at a distance, that the family members continued to be part of a “shared enterprise.” Until I read this essay, I had unconsciously assumed that if I wanted to give my kids independence to grow and fly (and I did) that this relegated me to a passive, waiting role, hoping they would come home. That role felt sad; continuing in a shared enterprise felt life-giving. And so it transformed the leaving experience in our family, at least for me.
8. The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli – I should say that I know Kristen. A few years ago, I read a beautiful manuscript she had written, a manuscript that had been rejected too many times, and encouraged her to keep writing. I’m so glad she did. This book is a young adult fiction book that just dazzles. In a world where stories lure dragons, Asha is a dragon slayer and a good one. But she and her stories have also resulted in massive destruction, and she bears the scars on her body and in her psyche. In this book, the stakes are extraordinarily high and get racheted up regularly. It’s a fascinating world with compelling characters. It contains a love story that is both chaste and erotic. It has a strong strong female lead. This book will be enjoyed by lots of adults but if you’re looking for a good book for teens, look no farther.
7. Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult was a book I saw recommended on a friend’s Facebook page, as issues of racial justice were discussed. Picoult writes issue-driven women’s fiction (which makes it sound much more horribly didactic than it is—she’s a bestselling author and she’s good, trust me!) I this book, a black obstetrical nurse is banned from caring for the child of a neo-Nazi—and then the child goes into respiratory arrest. While this sounds polarizing and dramatic, what’s most interesting about this book has to do with the third main character: a nice white lawyer who stands in for the nice white reader, and has to come to terms with her own blindness around race. The book also gives a glimpse of the many thousands of micro-aggressions faced by people of colour, and for that factor is also worth the read.
6 & 5. Dance of the Dissident Daughter/Women Who Run With Wolves – These two books were part of the middle of my year and followed after conversations about whether there was a heroine’s journey to accompany the hero’s journey, whether the idea of a hero’s journey is too masculine for women. Dance of the Dissident Daughter by Sue Monk Kidd offers a feminine face to Christian spirituality and follows Monk Kidd’s dissatisfaction with patriarchal Christianity and its effects. In a #metoo year, this not-new book offered important insights for me as a woman. I went form there to Clarissa Pinkola Estés’ book Women Who Dance with the Wolves, which I had seen referenced many times before. This book surprised me significantly; it was not what I had expected at all. It was a wilder, freer book which drew on fairy tales and myths to consider women’s experiences. At the same time it was entirely practical and down-to-earth. Probably my one complaint with these two books was that they felt slightly dated, addressing more specifically the needs of women twenty years ago than today, but they still felt entirely relevant.
4. Glass Houses – Louise Penny’s mysteries have appeared on my top 10 lists before. She publishes a new Inspector Gamache novel every end of August. Occasionally the books are duds but the vast majority are fantastic. The mysteries are set in Quebec with one of the kindest, more compelling detectives in fiction. In this book, Gamache, the head of Quebec’s Sȗreté de Police, has to contend with rampant drug crime, and has to consider what to do when the drug lords have ultimately won. In a time of catastrophic climate change and deeply disturbing world politics, Gamache’s question and ultimately hopeful although daring resolution to this question offers insight into intractable and seemingly hopeless challenges we may face.
3. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler. The first draft of the novel I finished early this year read much like one of my ancient diaries (I got up, had breakfast, got dressed, went to school..), although the events within it were more exciting. I knew the structure was the challenge and ended up in conversation with just the right person, a writer who saw the bones beneath the story itself: that it was a kind of mythic or fairy tale-like story. This conversation set me on a path of learning much more about story structure, and particularly to the ideas of the hero’s journey, as first articulated by Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung. The ideas resonated deeply with me and with my novel, and probably the best thing I read on the topic was Vogler’s book. He is a screenwriter, and this book is considered a classic, but it was new to me. I highly recommend it.
2. Locked Rooms by Laurie R King – My husband and I are big Sherlock Holmes buffs. We enjoy the television show Elementary as well as, of course, the Sherlock perfection that is Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve read every one of the stories (and delightfully, I always forget the twists in The Hound of the Baskervilles so that I get creeped out every time). If I remember correctly, I was at the Waterloo Public Library, looking for books by an author whose last name started with K when I saw the author Laurie R King, and that she had written a series of books about Sherlock Holmes…and his wife. I had similarly grabbed the most atrocious Jane Austen fan fiction once off a library shelf, so my expectations were low, but King surprised me with her credible characters: I’m not the only reviewer to say that she has absolutely captured the original Sherlock in her books, while providing him with a new sidekick (not to worry, Dr Watson makes frequent appearances, but like Sherlock, he is also retired). However, and this is a big however, the quality of this series varies widely. The author is clearly bright and knows her stuff but in some of the books, the setting and adventures take over too much and the story and the character development suffers. Not so Locked Rooms. This is one of my favourite of the books, a novel in which Mary Russell, Sherlock’s young wife has to confront the ghosts of her past in early 20th century San Francisco. Try this book (and others in the series), knowing to either skim through those that don’t work for you or skip them altogether. The books do not need to be written in order, and in fact, as the series has gone on (there are 14 books to date, I think), the author has gone back to fill in blanks on the timeline.
1. News of the World by Paulette Jiles– Some years I debate about my number one book. This year there was no debate. I read this book in May and I knew it would be the best book of the year. It has been described as a post-Civil War western. Set in 1870, an older man travels from town to town as an elocutionist reading the news of the world to audiences eager to widen their horizons. As the book begins, he agrees to return a young girl who had previously been kidnapped and orphaned by the Kiowa First Nations tribe back to her extended family. The book follows their often dangerous journey and their emotional journey of learning to trust one another. The news reader, Captain Kidd is one of the loveliest heroes in fiction. This book has an ending that feels like a well-executed quadruple axel in skating: it achieves a perfect landing without falling into saccharine or melancholy territory. I just loved it.
It’s that time of year again. Time for the best books of the year. It’s been a bit more challenging this year because my amazing gig as a book reviewer for the local paper came to an end late last fall—they fired all of us to save costs. Not that they ever paid any of us…but I digress.
This year I’ve made use of the public library, Little Free Libraries around my neighbourhood (https://littlefreelibrary.org/) , our beloved Words Worth books (http://www.wordsworthbooks.com/), the occasional Kobo book, and my favourite—abebooks.com—which is fantastic for finding out of print books as well as great deals on books.
But without further ado, let’s move on to the countdown of my top 10 books of 2016:
10 Number ten is not so much a book as an author. I think I’ve mentioned before that when my life is stressful, I turn to murder mysteries. My theory is that the appeal of them at stressful times is that things get wrapped up in the end. This is not always true in real life, so murder mysteries—which I’ve also heard of as disposable because once you’ve read it, you’re unlikely to go back and reread it—have an appeal during difficult times. This year, I stumbled upon a prolific author of murder mysteries I quite enjoyed: Robert Barnard. Barnard only died a few years ago but he was a clear fan of Agatha Christie and Charlotte Bronte, so his style is an older one. The quality of his books is quite variable (I suggest the library) but the good ones are well worth the read, and the characters stayed with me long after I finished the books. Even the ones I didn’t enjoy as much are most definitely worth reading. I was impressed that in his 40+ books, there is no formula and no same old-same old to them. I also read a couple of his books of short stories—and really did not enjoy them. The short stories were far darker and more sardonic than the novels.
9 The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp. Ann Voskamp is known as the New York Times bestselling author of faith-based book One Thousand Gifts, in which she explores gratitude. I will be honest that I am not even finished this second book of hers, but I’m enjoying it even more. In The Broken Way, Voskamp looks at how God uses brokenness and how we don’t have to have it all together. It’s an honest and beautiful book, with a more accessible reading style than her previous book. I recommend this one to you, mostly even if you are a person of faith but perhaps even if you aren’t.
8 Hope Makes Love – Can former major league baseball player make his ex-wife fall back in love with him? He hires neuroscientist Hope to try to do so. The title might suggest chick lit or something like it but it is anything but—and by the end, the reader understands this perfect title on so many levels. There’s humour and pathos mixed together, especially as we learn more about each character. I stayed up one night until 2 am because I could not put this book down. I highly recommend this book by Canadian writer, Trevor Cole.
7 The Confessions of X by Susanne M Wolfe. I met Wolfe’s husband (Gregory Wolfe is the publisher and editor of Image Journal) at an arts conference he hosted a decade ago. This year, I heard that Susanne had a novel out and I knew I wanted to read it. Wolfe inhabits the voice of the concubine-wife of Augustine, and titles her book after Augustine’s Confessions. This woman is mentioned in Augustine’s book but is never named—nor is she named here. The prose is luminous and the character compelling in her love and humanity. A very strong read.
6 A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – The book I am currently writing is set, in part, in Moscow, so when I heard about this new novel, I was interested in it. The book begins in 1922 with Count Alexander Rostov being sentenced for his aristocracy by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across from the Kremlin—for the rest of his life. How he does so is traced over the next thirty years by a masterful writer. The book is both charming and meaningful at the same time, and ultimately is a delightfully hopeful book filled with wonderful characters. Rostov spends his time in exile figuring out what it means to be a “man of purpose” and how to do so under sometimes difficult conditions. In a word, the book is enchanting.
5 The Most Beautiful House in the World by Witold Rybczynski. The book I am writing has to do with building a home for oneself, and an architect friend put me onto Canadian architect/writer Rybczynski. This book details Rybczynski’s building of his own home—he says, “The most beautiful house in the world is the one that you build for yourself.” The book is non-fiction and the author weaves in history about architecture in a compelling way, but ultimately it is an examination of home-building even more than house-building. The book won’t be for everyone but this is a strong author for those who like to think about the effect of place on people.
4 Memoirs of a Geisha – This book by Arthur Golden is nearly 20 years old, although it has been described as a “runaway bestseller” when it was published. Here’s the thing: I was nearly halfway into this book before I discovered—and I hesitate to say this to you now—that it was fiction. The book rings true, even though I had no idea of the world of geishas in Japan before and after the second world war. This is one of those books where the reader is clearly in the hands of a master storyteller from beginning to end ( A Gentleman in Moscow is another) and I loved it.
3 The Kindness of Enemies by Leila Aboulela – This book captivated me. It does for Islam what I would hope to do for Christianity: create real characters of faith in extraordinary situations. This book offers two stories –a present-day one in Scotland where a young Muslim man is arrested as a suspected terrorist, and the story of Imam Shamil, the 19th century Muslim leader who led the anti-Russian resistance in the Caucasian War. I rate this book so highly, and read others by the same author this year, even though I didn’t find the present-day story anywhere near as compelling as the 19th century one. The story of Imam Shamil and the young woman he captures as a hostage are worth the price of this book. This is a passionate story about who we are and what we will do for what we believe in. Its title shows the complicated nature of enemies and allies. Oh, it is a beautiful book.
2 Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr. I began reading this book, a birthday gift I requested, on the evening of my 47th birthday, during a rainstorm. It was not the lightning that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck, so much as the thought, early on, that I was potentially (and if I am fortunate) at the exact halfway point of my life—which is precisely what this book is about. Rohr, a Franciscan friar, writes well about a deeper spirituality and the new questions that arise at midlife: what looks like life falling apart, he argues, may be exactly life falling upward in a much more profound way. This is a book of contemplation and requires contemplative reading. I have already returned to it again and again. I’m not sure it is a book for people under 40 but it is definitely for the rest of us.
1 Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Late last winter, I took on a work project that was far more than any person should ever take on. The work was brutal and relentless. One evening I took a break and turned on Netflix. I had just finished Downton Abbey a few months before, and so when I saw a World War I drama called Testament of Youth, I decided to watch it. The movie was luminous, following the story of a young woman who desperately wants the opportunities for higher education that her upper class world wants to deny her—only to have the opportunity granted when the war breaks out. After so many of the young men she loves—fraternally, platonically and romantically—are killed, she becomes a nurse through the remainder of the war. At the end of the movie, it was revealed that the story was a true one and was based on the main character’s real 1933 memoir of the same name. Despite my relentless schedule, I read Vera’s memoir and felt I was in the war with her, in a sense. This is a deeply passionate book, a deeply sorrowful book and a deeply hopeful book. Vera Brittain was an ardent feminist and eventually an ardent pacifist. Her daughter is long-serving British politician Shirley Williams. Years ago, I read the LM Montgomery book Rilla of Ingleside and heard it described as largely unique because it told the story of the war on the home front. Vera Brittain did not stay at home but she offers a unique perspective on war that speaks profoundly to our time as well as her own. This is a thick and long book but it was one that spoke to me more than any other this year.
How about you? I’d love to hear your recommendations for good reads.
I think Daisy Jane would like this a lot. I hope you do too.
I got to go to the beach last week. A warm, humid Atlantic beach. It came about as a combination of deadlines that could be pushed off, an airline voucher about to expire and the generosity of my parents who let me spontaneously bunk in with them at their ocean-side hotel for a few days of bliss.
All the things I usually love about the ocean were there – the humid scent of salt and fish, the sound of waves crashing, the changing tides, seabirds swooping. But there was one thing more this time.
They appeared around three o’clock on my first day there, and I imagined they might be high school boys, sprung from class at the end of the day, or perhaps college students, balancing mind with body. They were all male that first day, and all clad in wetsuits.
I had heard that the water was so unseasonably warm that Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish had popped up along the coast, and indeed, as we walked along the shore, my dad and I saw bright blue jellied bladders stranded by the last high tide.
But these surfers stood at the shore, board in hand, eye on the horizon and then they stepped out into the surf.
Twice I was brave enough to actually let the waves wash over my ankles. Only twice.
They walked out against the waves, with the final crash of water against shore apparently the hardest barrier to break through. At a certain point, they climbed astride their boards and swam out with them. Sometimes waves crashed over their heads and I held my breath until they emerged in the next trough. Other times, they rode atop the crest of a wave and over it as they took their boards out to sea.
And then, perhaps a hundred and fifty metres off shore, they rested there, sometimes near other surfers – one time I counted more than a dozen of them – and sometimes on their own. The waves were high and choppy; the television said the waves were ten feet high most days.
Suddenly after having let a lot of waves pass them by, a surfer would suddenly be up—and then just as quickly be down again. Or perhaps the wave would take them far along its spine. One time I saw a surfer ride a wave all the way to the shore.
Their bodies were slim and compact. Many of them stood on the shore – especially the older ones – and stretched out every muscle before they headed out into the fog and spray.
I could not take my eyes off them. I wondered how they chose one wave over another, and believed it had to be by instinct and feel.
I could not decide whether they had more courage or foolishness than I did—and concluded it was likely both.
More than once, I saw an older person walking the shore approach a surfer to ask “what it’s like out there today?” On a quiet beach, they were our bright stars, our deep fascination.
Besides hanging out with my parents and breathing in sea air, I was on this trip to sort out a novel I’m writing, and which has been plaguing me for more than two years. I know what happens in this book and have written a lot of it. The challenge with this book is one I’ve never faced before: how to tell the story, and more specifically who tells the story. It has made me think of one of those hedge mazes or labyrinths, and I feel like I’ve been walking the edge of the maze for a long time, looking for the hidden entrance.
One sunny afternoon last week, I planted myself on a beach chair in the middle of the beach, while the surfers bobbed about and then flew across the water just off shore, and I both let my mind go and made it work hard, drawing notes in the sand with a twig and making notes on a sand-dusted pad of paper as I sorted the questions out. And I think I did it, too, even if it took a badly sunburned back of my neck to get there.
I realized, too, the parallels between the surfers and me. Just as nothing was really stopping me from crossing that space between shore and sea other than a lack of bravery and folly, nothing more stops any of us from crossing into the place of story—and yet only some of us do it. The rest of us sit on the shore and marvel at them, wondering how they dare, how they do it. For the surfer—or the writer—those stretching exercises are necessary and so are the quick falls into the sea when the wave doesn’t take you as far as you thought it might, instinct or no instinct. There are sharks in the water. There are jellyfish. There are always mouthfuls of saltwater and moments of panic at being over your head.
But there is also the glory of feeling a wave rise beneath you, knowing that it can carry you far and that you can ride it out, not in control of it, but letting it take you where it will.
This has been an exciting year of reading for me. For the first time ever, I kept a list of the books I read. The year began with a book I listed only as “stupid Jane Austen takeoff” and ended with one of my favourite books of all time. I read at least 64 books. I discovered and devoured three mystery series. I read newly published books and old chestnuts—both of which made my top 10 list. As I look through the long list of books I read, there are books that were good enough to make that top 10 but didn’t—it’s been that rich of a year of reading. I read, for instance, Go Set a Watchman – and was one of very few reviewers who actually really enjoyed the book, although more as a book that requires a coming of age for readers of To Kill a Mockingbird than as something brilliant.
What was most exciting to me this year in this list of books was that there were books that literally changed how I read, that demanded within their structure to be read a certain way. That feels remarkable. I read through the three mystery series the way one reads mysteries: devouring them the way you do a bowl full of potato chips. But there were three books on the list that made me read differently.
There’s sad reading news, too: for the last five or so years, I’ve been part of what I call The Book of the Week Club, where I review books for our local paper, The Record. I have been paid in review copies of books, some I might never have otherwise read. With the retirement of the books editor this month, the paper has decided to review its book page, likely having the reviews come either from a newswire or at least a more central group of reviewers. I’m sorry to see that happen both for readers and reviewers.
But without further ado, on to the list. My numbering system – other than the top two or three books—is pretty much random. Assume all 10 books are great, not that 7 is worse than 5.
10. S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst – This was the first book that made me read differently. Abrams, the creator of Lost, had an idea for a book and worked with writer Doug Dorst to develop it. The premise is somewhat complicated: The book itself is a dark and somewhat boring book called The Ship of Theseus but it appears to be a copy that has been marked up with marginal notes by two different readers, who have also stuck bits and pieces – letters, maps, postcards, etc – into the pages of the book. In fact the entire creation (book, marginal notes and ephemera) has been composed by Abrams and Dorst in an elaborate story within a story. I first heard about this book when a friend on social media asked if anyone knew how to read the book – the marginal conversation notes take place between two characters who read the book multiple times, with some notes being newer than others. A thorough reading might involve reading The Ship of Theseus straight through, then reading the first set of notes through and then the second set after that, reading the bits and pieces as it seemed appropriate. Perhaps people have invested in the book to that degree. I found myself drawn to the marginal notes and abandoning the original novel itself. I’m not sure the idea is entirely realized but it was innovative and enjoyable enough to merit making it to this list. It becomes a kind of love letter to books and words – and the notes we collect and keep. In a digital age, this book celebrates artifacts. I borrowed my copy from the public library and would recommend that approach to this creative reading experience.
9. The Life and Culinary Times of Sir John A. Macdonald by Lindy Mechefske — It turns out that our first Prime Minister was quite a foodie—food author Mechefske deftly weaves in Macdonald’s culinary history to his political and personal history, from the simplest of Scottish fare early in Macdonald’s life to more exotic and glamorous meals later on. Each chapter ends with a recipe taken from an early Canadian source, many of which could be reproduced today. In my review of this book, I said, “This book is eminently readable—would that all history were written like this!—and interesting, offering both the clearest example of 19th century Canadian politics and very human insights into a very human architect of our country.” This is a small, quirky and highly enjoyable book.
8. The Story of Owen by E.K. Johnston – Johnston is a local writer who writes about locations familiar to many southwestern Ontario readers with one critical element added to revise everything: in this alternate reality there are dragons. The dragons are drawn most especially to carbon—cars, factories, bonfires—but they don’t hesitate to polish off people or to destroy everything in their wake. This young adult novel is brilliant, witty and extremely well told. The book is not what the reader might expect in any way, whether the expectation has to do with dragon stories, or teenaged protagonists. It’s a story about community and friendship, sacrifice and finding a place in the world. It’s also a story about how we tell stories, the various versions of reality we present to various audiences. Highly recommended. (PS there’s a sequel!)
7. High Tide in Tucson by Barbara Kingsolver – This book is not new but somehow despite the fact that Kingsolver is who I would like to be when I grow up, I missed reading this book of essays before. Kingsolver wrote this book in 1995 when she was quite young and her insights into writing, nature and humanity are just breathtakingly lovely, at turns passionate and humourous. It made me wish that I could sit down with her over a cup of coffee even if I never could be her.
6. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton – This summer I decided I needed to read some classics I had missed reading before. Some of the classics felt dated or just didn’t appeal to me, but not so The Age of Innocence. The word I would use to best describe this book is exquisite. It’s a stunning portrait of New York City high society in its Gilded Age, a world Wharton herself knew well. This was a book that enveloped me in its world and characters, with their constraining conventions inhibiting but never destroying their passions. Apparently the 1993 film adaptation, starring Daniel Day Lewis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Winona Ryder, was well received but even watching a trailer of the movie convinced me that it could never live up to the subtle brilliance of this novel, for which Wharton became the first female winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1921.
5. The Singing Sands by Josephine Tey – I used to say that I read murder mysteries only when my life became out of control—mysteries had the comfort of a solution by the end of them, unlike much of life—but in the last few years, either my life has fully spun out of control or I have learned to appreciate mysteries for their own merits. This year I enjoyed three series of mysteries: the Guido Brunetti mysteries of Donna Leon which are set in Venice and are both terrific and still being written; Sicilian writer Andrea Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano novels which I actually don’t really recommend as they are fairly crude, reflecting the underbelly of an area of Italy dominated by corruption and Mafia; the novels of Josephine Tey. I discovered Tey in an article about the Golden Age of the detective novel. The article referenced Agatha Christie, of course, and Dorothy Sayers and Ngaio Marsh, all of whom I had read extensively—but it called Tey something like the queen of the genre. I had never heard of her before but I headed off to the library to discover her books. Her canon is small—only nine novels—but while all of these books involve the same world of characters, they are remarkably unique, lacking the murder mystery’s formula. English murder mysteries, I have come to see, often have a flawed or wounded detective in them—think Lord Peter Wimsey’s shellshock. Tey’s lovely Inspector Alan Grant is more human than most in that in some books he is very capable and robust while in others he struggles with mental and physical health issues as an occupational hazard. The book I chose to include on this last falls into the latter category: to his enormous chagrin and frustration, Grant has become claustrophobic and takes a medical leave of absence to attempt to recover. Of course, on the train to his beloved Scotland, he discovers a body, but his involvement in the case and his parallel recovery are anything but formulaic and at times have a lyrical quality to them. If you have never read Tey’s books, I urge you to do so. My only disappointment was to reach the end of her books far too quickly.
4. Awakening at Midlife by Kathleen A. Brehony – This year I turned 46 and my oldest child graduated from high school. I found myself exploring issues about midlife in my own writing and journal writing—as well as in my daily life – and so I thought I would do a bit of reading on the topic. I was fortunate and deeply happy to discover Brehony’s writing. A licensed psychologist and Jungian psychotherapist, Brehony approaches midlife as an important stage in adult development, noting that we are wrong as a culture to believe that the end of adolescence involves the end of personality development. So much of this book resonated with me and elevated the struggles and challenges people face at this time of life—in a way that was so opposite to popular culture’s description of a midlife crisis as involving fast cars and tattoos. The book won’t be for everyone but I found it deeply insightful.
3. The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow – As readers of my annual list will know, Erin Bow is a writer in my writers group as well as being internationally acclaimed for her powerful, intelligent young adult novels. I’ve had the privilege to read this book from its earliest drafts to its final spectacular published version. I say that all of her novels are terrific, whip-smart, tremendously dark but still hopeful, and laugh-out-loud-funny, but this particular book is one that makes me fangirl her writing. The Scorpion Rules is set in a world where the children of world leaders are hostaged together with their lives being forfeit if their countries go to war. This world is run by Talis, an artificial intelligence who is perhaps the best character you will read in fiction this year or even decade. Trust me on this one and get it for your kids or for yourself. It’s a great read—with a strong sequel in the works.
2. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone – In a normal year, this would be my favourite book of all. It still could be. It was the bestselling book in the year of its publication (1961) despite being a massive 776 pages long. The book is a biographical novel of Michelangelo, lovingly researched by Stone who not only had all of Michelangelo’s nearly 500 letters translated and read extensively from the many biographies of the artist, but also lived in Italy and learned to sculpt stone from a Canadian sculptor. As I read this book, it felt like a neverending story in the very best way. The book begins with a 13 year old Michelangelo and traces in great detail the rest of his life. It is the opposite of a thriller and has no narrative arc to it. Instead, as a reader, I felt as though I was living a parallel life as I climbed into bed each night and read a bit more of Michelangelo’s life. I found everything about the book fascinating and most especially both his passion for sculpture and the agonies and ecstasies he faced particularly at the hands of his patrons. The insights into the artistic life—both its process and the challenges of supporting an artistic life—are remarkable. I did not want this book to end. It was a library book I picked up serendipitously from the same shelf as a book I planned to take out, but it is one I can see buying and reading and re-reading often.
1. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel – I read this novel in May and declared then that this would be the best book I would read all year—and, with the possible exception of the Michelangelo book—it absolutely was. Technically, this is a science fiction book but please, please don’t let that put you off reading it. My warning about the book, however, is not to read it if you are getting sick (as I did) or if you are on a plane. The book begins with the start of a massive, global pandemic which wipes out 99% of the world’s population in a stunningly short time, and then picks up twenty years later with the tiny percentage of the population that has survived. As you might imagine, the beginning of the book is fast-paced as crises tend to be. I read it at that same pace. What intrigued me most about this book was that once the dust settled, and the world as we know it ground to a halt, many of the people and events glossed over in those first few pages of the book were revisited. I found myself going back to those first pages and paying much more attention to what happened and what was said than I did on my first read. And that was the supreme value of this book: it forces the reader to pay attention and to have a sense of wonder and appreciation for things that are or could be potentially ephemeral. What is further interesting is the fact that where most books celebrate the loss of the beauties of the natural world, this book honours lost technology and culture, showing us the near-miracle that is air travel, email, telephone, film, antibiotics, etc. The reader will find herself or himself paying attention to tools we too often take for granted. One of the fascinating issues in this book is the question of what survives: this can refer to the people who survive the pandemic but also the artefacts. Much of the later world of the book centres around The Traveling Symphony, a Shakespearean company of actors whose motto comes from a line in Star Trek: because survival is insufficient. Other bits and pieces of culture survive and come to play significant roles in the story. This is neither a gory apocalyptic book nor a hopeless book, despite its dark subject. It affirms culture and humanity and new life. I hope you will read it.
Let me know what your favourites for the year are–and what you think of these books too.
Last week, someone contacted me to ask if there were any book club questions floating around out there for Ithaca. While I have visited with a variety of book clubs–all of whom have asked terrific questions about the book–I had to admit that I don’t think that there are.
So, here’s where you come in. Whether you’ve been part of a book club or not, would you send me your questions about the book in the comment section of this blog. They could be your own personal questions about the book (although let’s avoid spoilers) but ideally they would be questions that might start discussion at a book club.
Yesterday was Thanksgiving in the US and this Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent. As much as I still can’t quite believe it when I hear Bing crooning in the grocery store, I think it might be true: Christmas is almost upon us.
More than a dozen years ago, I found myself thinking about Christmas throughout the year as I wrote a novel that imagined the wise men and what would make them go off in search of a star.
The result was my first novel, Seeker of Stars. A number of kind people have told me it is a book they return to each Christmas season.
If the book is new to you, I invite you to meet Melchior and the unmoving star he seeks.
On Sunday, my husband and I drove through dark clouds and brilliant sunshine and the remaining golden leaves of the rolling hills of southern Ontario and up into the granite of the edge of the Canadian Shield and into Bracebridge where Bracebridge United Church had invited me to their soup supper to speak about the writing of Ithaca. They prepared six different soups and had more to sell in mason jars. I perched on a stool and shared my experience with them. One of the women in the audience was a widow and she gave me a copy of an article she carries with her for when people ask her how she’s doing.
Here’s what I had to say to them:
This week is Bring Your Child to Work Day in our city anyhow. I am not bringing my kid to work, though, because my work is tricky one to bring anyone into. My desk is located in the corner of our newly renovated kitchen. I have a computer, a dictionary, a jar of pens, and a stack of files. I sit there and type. Or write in a notebook or on graph paper. It really isn’t the world’s most exciting job.
And yet, people think that it is. I’ve come here today to talk about the writing process of my book Ithaca, which many of you have so kindly read.
I thought I might share with you some of the quotations I have on my bulletin board to give some insight into what inspires me:
At the top left of the bulletin board is a quote from Oscar Wilde who said, “Man is hungry for beauty. There is a void.” Then Dostoyevsky, with one of my favourite quotes: “Beauty will save the world.”
Just below that is a Rainer Maria Rilke quote: “Try to be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a foreign tongue. Do not seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually without noticing it live along some distant day into the answer.”
I have a Starbucks cup quote cup out and stuck on board, that says, “There are many times when dancing is the most unsupportable, ridiculous, unexpected and necessary action. Life should be spent finding those moments and tap dancing through them”
I have a ribbon that says, “I color outside the lines.”
A Lord of the Rings quote from Frodo who says, “I will take the Ring tho’ I do not know the way.”
There is a French quote from Jean Cocteau that says, “Writing is an act of love. If it isn’t, it is nothing but scribbling.”
Paul Anster, “To write a work of fiction, one must be free to say what one has to say.”
“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” – Antoine de Saint Exupery.
Finally, and I think this is appropriate to Ithaca, I have a lovely poem done in clay by the poet Mary Oliver, which says, “To live in this world you must be able to do three things: to love what is mortal; to hold it against your bones, knowing your own life depends on it, and, when the time comes, to let it go, to let it go.
So, what does all this tell you about me and my writing process?
Writing is an act of telling the truth
This is not the same as the idea that writing is autobiographical. I am not a widow. I’m not a blood donor. It was only this summer that I finally hosted my neighbours for a soup supper. I’m not a faculty wife who only graduated high school. The autobiographical elements in Ithaca are the moment when Henry accidentally kisses Daisy on the ear – that happened to me once, as an accident, and it was unexpectedly intimate. I also have similar feelings toward my children as Daisy does toward her son. Our kids are in the process of beginning to leave the nest and I hope that I can do as Daisy did in letting them go without holding them back.
But I have had experiences of grief, and in fact this book was a kind of anticipatory grief of the death of my grandmother, who died last summer and to whom the book is dedicated. As I wrote this book, I studied grief and writing about grief – although maddeningly it didn’t make the grief any easier when the time came. One thing I learned about grief is that it is different for each person and different with each loss. That gave me the freedom to allow Daisy’s grief to be unique. The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion was one of the books I found helpful, although it was less magical than I had thought it might be.
We are conditioned to be nice, especially in the church but also in our families and in society. Often we have secrets and stories we are not allowed to tell. I actually wrote two novels set in a village loosely based on one in Quebec where my sister has a summer home. Although the books are sympathetic and I think would make people want to come there, my sister was horrified that I had written about that place and asked me not to publish them.
Writing is an act of hope and beauty
If I have a life verse from the Bible, it is Jeremiah 15:19: Therefore, thus says the LORD, “If you return, then I will restore you– Before Me you will stand; And if you extract the precious from the worthless, You will become My spokesman.”
I love that idea of finding the precious from the worthless, and extracting it. I suppose you could look it as that’s what those who frack do – pulling the oil from the shale – but I also think it is a question here of figuring out what really matters and writing about it. I write for and about non-profits and charities as part of my business. I help organizations and individuals tell their stories well. I edit novels and memoirs for people, and help them be their best selves in their writing.
But I also try to separate the precious from the worthless in my own writing – to find the beautiful. Ithaca’s inspiration came from several places. In the spring of 2011, we got a puppy, and my sister had just had a child with a disability. The puppy was too young to put in a kennel and my sister’s cottage was out that summer, so we had to find a place we could visit that allowed dogs. A friend suggested Ithaca, New York – halfway between Toronto and New York City – as a place that welcomed dogs. We went and loved it. As we drove around to state parks to hike the trails, we saw signs that read “NO FRACKING.” Months later, I looked up the word, which I didn’t know – and learned about the proposed drilling for oil in the beauty of the Finger Lakes region. Fracking was also a metaphor, I came to see, for the enormous upheaval that happens periodically in our lives – and the jury was out on whether or not this was a good thing or a bad thing.
That fall, as I walked with my dog around our older neighbourhood, I got glimpses into people’s lives as they often washed their dishes at a kitchen window or sat at their dining room table as a family or marking papers or living their lives. I saw evidence of their lives – lives that had not been purchased completely at Home Sense for their tastefulness and for being on trend – but things that had accumulated over years and years of life, of Christmases and babies and vacations and work. I began to see both the beauty of such collections and the potential weight of them in people’s lives when the upheavals came. That, I think, was when Daisy walked into my mind.
I knew from the start that she was a widow and that she hosted a weekly soup supper. I thought initially that she had lived with Lee for years and that the story would take place when Lee’s adopted son came back into town. I started to get to know these two women and to write about them. I wrote chapters from both their points of view, but fairly early on, I found myself surprised to be much more interested in Daisy rather than the more overtly interesting Lee. The story became Daisy’s story, a kind of coming of age story.
In terms of publishing this story, I wrote it from the fall of 2011 until the spring of 2013, and sent it off to two publishers who were interested in the book. And then I waited. One said that they would be back to me within 3 months and the other said “as soon as possible.” 14 months later, neither had even opened the files. Because the book was in part about fracking, I wanted to get it out into the world as quickly as possible before fracking was either old hat or even banned altogether. People call self-publishing vanity publishing but for me, it was a kind of “overcoming vanity” publishing – because I believe that publishers know what good quality is and I was afraid that mine wouldn’t be a book worth publishing. Although, as I say, it was never actually rejected. I hired a cover designer, a book designer, a proof reader and editor and made the book the best we could make it.
Writing has to be playful
Like the quote about the need for dancing, I think that writing really needs to be playing with words and with ideas. Many of the best ideas come from discovering something and wondering what if, or having two ideas collide together. This week in the news came a story that a US couple’s son was determined to be not the man’s son but the son of his never-born twin brother, whose cells had been absorbed into his body when the twin died before birth. That is a story that would frighten me to tell, but I can completely imagine it capturing the interest of a certain kind of writer, and then them playing with that idea.
For me, my first book came about when, in 2002, my church’s worship leader asked if I would write a series of short dramas for Advent that year – one based on Mary, one on Joseph, one on the shepherds and one on the wise men. I had three preschoolers at the time so I actually figured Mary, Joseph and yes, even the shepherds would come quite easily, It was the wise men that stumped me – so I thought I would try to tackle them first. I went off to Crieff Hills Community – a wonderful retreat centre run by the Presbyterian Church of Canada where I have gone for years on writing retreats. I stay in what they call the Hermitage – a former milk house, with thick stone walls – and which contains a bed, a shower, a toilet a microwave, a bar fridge, a sink and a desk – all in the smallest space.
I had written short stories as a child and again in high school, but although I studied English at university and had worked in communications, I had not written fiction in a number of years. I walked around the Crieff property that summer evening and wondered how I might write this story. I was neither a man nor wise and the story seemed strange to me. And then, a little boy walked into my mind, a boy who was fascinated by stars, and I had found my way into the story. That’s often what it takes – it’s almost like a key to a door, or finding the way into a maze – I sat down and began to write this boy’s story, and by the time my family arrived the next morning, I was about 30 pages into his story and I knew that it was not done yet and that it was going to be more than just a five-minute skit for church. It became my first novel, Seeker of Stars.
The novel I am working on now had an interesting start as well. And it also involves my dog – who really does earn his kibble. Two and a half years ago, we moved to a new neighbourhood in our city. Very near our house is an old cemetery and it has great paved paths in it for walking. I love walking the dog in the cemetery and I love seeing the unusual names on gravestones, seeing the different lengths of lives – husbands who died at 36 and whose widows lived to 98 – there was one lady buried last year who was born in 1911 – and near her grave is a small stone of a little boy also born in 1911 but who died in 1914. A cemetery is full of scope for the imagination, as Anne of Green Gables would say. But one marker caught my eye in particular. In a cemetery with mostly oblong stones of various materials, some urns, a few angels and some portraits of Jesus, there is one statue of a young girl holding a laurel wreath – but she marks the grave of a 70 year old woman with a terrific name – that I won’t tell you because she’s in my novel and it’s a work in progress. I decided to look up her name online one day and found out that when she was about my age, she built a castle in our city, a castle that burned down only a few years ago. Her story captured my imagination and I began to play with it. It took me a very long time to find my way into the story, especially because she was a real person and that stumped me for a while, but I’m writing her story now.
I also play with others, but I have to find the right people. I remember years ago talking with a non-writer friend at a Bible study who asked what I had been doing that day in my writing. What I had been doing I made the mistake of telling her – and that was, in the midst of my Quebec novels, I had a character who had begun an affair with one of his colleagues at school, and I was trying to figure out how they would face one another in the workplace afterwards. She looked at me, aghast, as if I had confessed that I was having an affair with a colleague. So, it’s important to find people who understand how this process works. Almost eleven years ago, I wanted to find such people, and I approached a couple of writers I knew and asked if they knew of others. We formed a group of six of us and we have met monthly ever since to discuss and critique one another’s work. We call ourselves the Hopeful Writers and they are a very important part of my life.
Finally, I’d like to talk a bit about soup here. Yesterday, my husband and I joined with our small group at church and made three big vats of soup for the young adults at our church. We tripled our recipes and made the soups. Then we had to test them. One of the soups was too sweet so we had to tinker with it – adding spice and salt and a bit of lime juice until it was better. Making soup is very different than making, say, a cake. In a cake, you need to get your measurements just right or your cake will turn out flat or uneven. Soup is usually much more art than science. It’s more playful. It also reminds me more of community – in part because soup is a comforting meal on a cold night, and in part because like a community, it takes a bit of this and a bit of that to make. I love that people have resonated with the soup theme. Just this week, a woman who was widowed a few years ago told me that she found this book very comforting and she said she thought it was because of the soup. I thank you, Mary and everyone else here, for welcoming us tonight with warm bowls of soup and community, and for welcoming Daisy into your midst too. I hope you will tell your other friends about this book if you enjoyed it, and I hope it will continue to simmer in your minds and hearts like a good soup does.