December 13, 2011
My Favourite New Books of 2011
It’s been a funny old year for me reading-wise. I read fewer new books in general, and I read a lot of new books that were kind of disappointing. I enjoyed much-hyped American books like This Beautiful Life and The Submission, but found them lacking as literature in ways their NYTimes reviews never referred to. A lot of new releases never appealed to me, and all subsequent success never managed to nudge my prejudices. I read very little little poetry, and focused too much on women writers. And more than anything else, I focused on my vast collection of unread novels acquired at various used book-sales over the years, and found such treasures there once I blew the dust off. Also remarkable is that I read so many great books this year that were written by friends of mine, such as Jessica Westhead’s And Also Sharks and Rebecca Rosenblum’s The Big Dream, and though both of these are among my 2011 literary highlights, I’m aware that I’m too close to be fully objective about them.
When I review any book upon my blog, it’s because I feel that the book is worth my time and yours, and a listing of those that have risen to the top can be found here. And what follows now is the top of the top of another rewarding reading year.
Blue Nights by Joan Didion: Like everything Joan Didion writes, this book is not easily summarized and has been misunderstood, even by people who’ve read it. Though apparently it had its origins in a less personal book about parenting, it became an examination of aging and mortality for one to whom it had never occurred that such ideas could be reality. To compare this book with “Good-Bye To All That” and “On Keeping A Notebook” only underlines its depth– amazing how much about loss someone so consumed with nostalgia never knew, but that’s what age does. Like everything Joan Didion writes, the meaning comes from her articulation of universal experience intersecting with her own particular world view. Part of the attraction is pure Joan Didion allure, yes, but most of the attraction is words unloaded with such remarkable precision.
Outside the Box by Maria Meindl: This is the book I can’t stop talking about, and I’m pleased that I’ve managed to win it at least a few readers. As noted in a conversation with a friend today, Meindl could write about anything and it would be interesting, but her subject is so interesting too. She chronicles the history of Canadian magazine and broadcast journalism, the history of Toronto literati (and the bohemian Gerrard Street Village in the ’50s), the status of women throughout the 20th century, the dazzling enticement of celebrity, and the story of her extraordinary grandmother whose eccentricities and foibles make her a fascinating character (though undoubtedly a frustrating family relation). But most of all, it’s a really great read, and Meindl proves herself a deft handler of narrative.
The Antagonist by Lynn Coady: What I’ve only yet confessed to my closest friends is that I’ve never wanted to have sexual relations with a fictional character the way I wanted to get with Rank, Coady’s outsized narrator. My more public declaration was that this was one of the few books ever that I would have read forever and ever, the story and the voice absolutely gripping. I loved the narrative ambiguity, the metafictional elements, the humour, the spot-on portrayal of small town life and also university life (because in many ways, this is as much a campus novel as was Mean Boy). Lynn Coady is amazing, and this book is her very best yet.
This Will Be Difficult to Explain and other stories by Johanna Skibsrud: Were this the very first book we’d ever read by Skibsrud, I think she’d be the critics’ darling, and we’d all be lamenting her underappreciatedness. But her Giller win last year cast her into the spotlight with The Sentimentalists, which means that all the people who dislike successful people don’t like her and neither do those with little patience for challenging writing (and that almost makes everybody). The Sentimentalists was a divisive book, and though I liked it, I thought it was more interesting than brilliant. Her story collection This Will be Difficult to Explain and Other Stories, however, is excellent and I’m sorry that more people haven’t had the chance to fall in love with it. When I read it a second time to prepare for my interview with Skibsrud, I discovered new depths I hadn’t even detected first time around– these stories are rife with buried treasure. My Mavis Gallant comparison didn’t come from nowhere– in the Year of the Short Story, this book stands out as one of the best.
Never Knowing by Chevy Stevens: I am such a snob that I never get to fall in love with the books that everybody else loves because I always think they’re terrible. Which means that I never get to wrapped up in fat paperbacks about serial killers, but with Stevens, I had the chance. I’ve heard from those who read her first book that the violence was a bit gratuitous, but I think she dialled it back a bit for this one. I loved that she managed to create suspense with a character who operated like a real person rather than one who committed stupid though plot-enabling conventions such as keeping secrets, and going down to the basement. In a truly remarkable cliche-defying feat, Steven proves that popular fiction is capable of being awesome.
I’m a Registered Nurse Not a Whore by Anne Perdue: Oh, the gasps, as I read this book on my summer vacation. My husband had to tell me to shut up because I was bothering him, but I couldn’t stop, because Perdue kept delivering one shock after another. The range of stories in the collection is really remarkable, the spectrum including a rooming house resident to one master of the suburban barbecue (and oh, that ending. Gasp. Holy John Cheever). Perdue is Jessica Westhead meets Alexander MacLeod, and I love this book.
The Forgotten Waltz by Anne Enright: I don’t know if I’ll ever understand why this book never made the awards lists this year, and maybe it’s like Skibsrud and that you get lost in the shuffle when the follow-up to your divisive acclaimed work is even better than what came before. But there is no better novel for 2011 than this one (which I read in its entirety one day in June when I was sick in bed, and it’s the only book I’ve ever read while sick that I don’t feel sick when I think about). It’s about the economic crisis for goodness sakes, and real estate boom and bust, and so this is serious stuff, you know. But it’s also about a love affair, which is the most real thing in the entire world. Enright’s sentences are to die for, but she’s also created an unforgettable voice in Gina, and perfect document of the way we live now.
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner: Zsuszi Gartner’s success is what happens when great innovative writing is marketed to the mainstream, rather than relegated to a weird literary ghetto.I read its title story first in an issue of The New Quarterly, and I’d never encountered anything else like it. And there is justice in the world in that Gartner made it to the Giller shortlist, because this collection is everything you never imagined that CanLit could be– sharp-witted, biting, urban, satirical, scathing and shocking. It asks more of its reader than the average acclaimed book tends to, but the rewards are plenty. You’ll finish this book and look around you and think, “Truly, this is a place where something is going on.” (Runner up in this category is Carolyn Black’s collection The Odious Child.)
And Me Among Them by Kristen den Hartog: Odd, the second book on my list about an outsized narrator, this time Ruth Brennan who is seven feet tall and whose perspective beholds remarkable things. From the intro to my interview with Kristen den Hartog: “When I fell in love with And Me Among Them last spring, it really felt like a spring, because it was the first novel I’d loved in ages after a long cold winter. The magical elements of the story about a girl who grows to be seven feet tall and is blessed with a strange omniscience were so perfectly countered with a realism that kept the story’s feet on the ground, and the entire effect delighted me, which is remarkable when one notes my aversion to books about freakish sorts (confession: I am of the handful of people who hated Geek Love).”
Out of Grief, Singing by Charlene Diehl: On New Years Eve last year, the Globe and Mail published recommendations by Canadian literary types, and this was Alison Pick’s. Part of my attraction to this book is my insistence upon staring worst fears in the face, which is a faulty insurance, I know, but Diehl’s story about the loss of her baby not long after birth is also an affirming tribute to the power of story, and represents a remarkable broadening of the motherhood narrative.
Also: A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan and Burley Cross Postbox Theft by Nicola Barker: I read these books whilst on vacations, therefore leisurely, and never put coherent thoughts together about them except I LOVE THESE BOOKS. Further, this was a year with Margaret Drabble in it, with her remarkable collected stories A Day in the Life of the Smiling Woman. So naturally, it was a very good year.
Coming tomorrow: My Favourite Not -New Books of 2011