The editor at the newspaper I write reviews for says he could likely fill his section each week with just my reviews. I’m a fast reader and I think the fact that I am a fiction writer as well as not-wealthy reader means I understand the balance between reviewing in a way that considers the ego of the writer and that also helps a potential reader decide whether a book is worth the twenty or thirty dollars it might cost. One of many things I like about reviewing books is that often I take the opportunity of reading books I might not have otherwise picked up.
I’ve chosen my ten favourite books of the year, but like children, it really is hard to choose between them. I will give you my number one book of the year — Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Table — but really the rest are a jumble of assorted delights. You will enjoy any and all of them.
The Cat’s Table was published in 2011 but I didn’t pick it up until this year. I am a huge Ondaatje fan. I would love to get inside his complex brain to thoroughly understand how he creates the layers and collages of memory (real and invented) that make up his books. I read this book unusually slowly during a busy time of the summer: usually I read a book in an evening or two, but the book and my life lent themselves to a slower,more episodic reading that I think was part of the magic of the experience. The cover of the softcover book I read is a luminous navy blue of sea and sky at night, with a ship in the centre. This ship is home to the majority of the story’s narrative, and traces a trip that Ondaatje himself took as a boy, between Ceylon and England. This book, however, is fiction, and one I highly recommend.
Another fictional story that took place in a setting known well to its author is the Governor-General Award nominated The Juliet Stories. This book is one I did not publicly review, because I know the author, Carrie Snyder, whose son is in my daughter’s class. I always avoid reviewing books of people I know because of the dangers of gushing and/or not liking the book. I read The Juliet Stories in one very very long sitting, the night of its launch. It drew me in with its fine, fine writing, characterization, subtle humour, and unflinching look at life and memory. I recommend it to you.
Sometimes my reading is seasonal. I’m a big Olympics fan and in the lead up to the summer games in London, I enjoyed the book Gold by Chris Cleave. The novel follows a very small and intense world within the games: two female cyclists, three men and a very ill child in their lives. The book shifts back and forth between these six perspectives in a deeply authentic way. The book also evokes the pace of cycling and as the stakes in both life and game escalated, I found my heart racing.
Not long after Christmas, my family believed we were facing the imminent end of our matriarch. (It turned out she was able to make a remarkable recovery.) One of the books that accompanied me on that journey was The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe. This book had been recommended to me by a good reader friend but somehow the title led me to expect it to be schmaltzy, some sort of stupid bucket list kind of book. Instead, the book is a beautiful elegy to the power of reading, the strength of the mother-son relationship and the unfolding knowledge of how to live and die well. Schwalbe memorably says he learned from his mother: “Reading isn’t the opposite of doing; it’s the opposite of dying.”
Dying is a key theme in John Green’s young adult novel The Fault in Our Stars. I was at a cocktail party with Green this past spring, but he was engaged in conversation and, as so often happens when I have the opportunity to meet even quasi-celebrities, the only things I could think to say fell into the category of Inarticulate Crazed Fangirl. The book, however, is a laugh-out-loud funny, cry your eyes out story about two young people who fall in love despite the fact that they both have potentially terminal cancer. I’ve read cautions about the tendency toward death books in young adult fiction, and there are some I would rather not read, but this is one of the good ones.
Another of the good ones is a fabulous biography of Julia Child, called Dearie. I remember Julia Child from my childhood as a weird woman with a strange voice. I had not read or seen Julie and Julia (and in fact tried the movie after this biography, and was not entranced.) This is a terrific example of biography done well, and in a way that absolutely suits its subject matter. Dearie‘s author, Bob Spitz, loved (and slightly knew) Child and his warmth for her enhances rather than takes away from the book. What intrigued me most was how very long it took Child to find a satisfying outlet for her intensity, passion and joie de vivre: she was 40 by the time she found her calling. I found this inspiring.
The book Indian Horse was one I read early in the year and also found inspiring. Writer Richard Wagamese tells a deeply disturbing tale that is at the same time hope-filled and beautiful. He examines the shame of Canada’s residential schools in a mystical tale that is an ode to the good old hockey game and its power to lift players above their situations, it is a story of a system that fails and fails its children in horrifying ways, but ultimately and from the start, it is a story of healing.
When I read the first half of The Poisonwood Bible years ago, I thought it was by far the best book I had ever read. The second half, however, left me cold. I had a similar experience with the debut novel of Australian writer M.L. Stedman: The Light Between Oceans. This writer leads the reader into her book better, more seductively and beautifully than any book I can remember reading. Her writing is a marvel and yet it does not call attention to itself. The premise of the book is compelling — a dead man and a live baby wash up on the shore of a remote Australian island in the 1920s where a shellshocked war veteran lighthouse keeper and his wife, who had miscarried yet again only two weeks before, find and decide to keep the child as their own. The resolution of the story is also fitting. It’s the middle bit where the same ground got trodden more than a bit too often that made me lose some patience with it. However, it still shines as a star and I still recommend it highly.
Babel No More was another well-written book of 2012, but this one is a nonfiction book. Writer and linguist Michael Erard sets out to understand polyglots, people who speak multiple languages. Erard’s own curiosity and storytelling skills are as much a draw as the unusual subjects he meets and researches.
This fall, I met Miranda Hill at The New Quarterly’s Wild Writers Festival. We both looked at each other and were fairly sure we knew each other from somewhere, although we weren’t sure quite where. Interestingly, I had a similar experience with the first story in Hill’s debut short story collection, Sleeping Funny, in which I could nearly imagine myself as a character. Hill has background in drama and her ability to inhabit the minds, hearts and lives of disparate characters, with compassion, was compelling. (I should also note how lovely it was to read Hill and Snyder’s stories and find lightness and humour alongside an unflinching gaze at reality. Too often literary fiction seems compelled to be Serious, Hopeless and Dour. These fine writers demonstrate that despondency is not a required quality in a writer.)
That brings me to ten. I want to add one more. This summer, the popular Irish writer Maeve Binchy died. A friend on Facebook mentioned how much she loved Binchy’s work. I had never bothered to pick up her writing before, but I decided to give it a try, and frankly, I loved it. I especially enjoyed how interconnected the characters of Binchy’s various novels are — someone who is the main character of one book might make a fleeting appearance in another. Binchy’s books are indeed feel-good books, but not at the expense of realty. Not everyone ends up happy and married and rich. She was a good observer of human nature and did a fine job of creating believable character sketches that told the tale. She will be missed.
How about you? What were your favourites of 2012?