December 16, 2012
Pickle Me This 2012 Books of the Year
As ever, it’s been a good year for books, and I’m only sorry that not everyone has yet been given the chance to fall in love with all the books that I loved best this year, but these are all books with good long shelf-lives and I know you will be happy to encounter any of these whenever you happen to do so. Just make sure you do.
Here We Are Among the Living by Samantha Bernstein: I loved this memoir-in-emails, this wonderful Toronto book about coming of age in the shadow of 9/11 and the legacy of the Baby Boomers. From my review: It’s a book I emailed my friends about, my friends who were sitting around a booth with me at a College Street diner on the night of September 11 2001, and I told them, “This is our story.”
Mad Hope by Heather Birrell: Heather is my friend, but I have no compunction about including her book on my list with some objectivity because I really had no idea of the depths of her brilliance until until I read it. It’s a beautiful, rich, meticulously-curated short story collection, and it’s turning up on year-end best-of lists all over for good reason. Mad Hope is excellent.
The Book of Marvels by Lorna Crozier: This is the book I kept talking to strangers about on busses, reading them the line about forks: “It’s the only kitchen noun, turned adjective, attached to lightning.” From my review: …one of the few books I’ve ever encountered that dazzles you when its dust jacket falls off: the book is argyle. Its design is splendid, and the contents will not disappoint, guaranteed to appeal to anyone who loves words, and stories, and the thingy-ness of things.
Arcadia by Lauren Groff: Groff is my favourite American writer, with so much more substance than hype about her, and in her second novel Arcadia, she just keeps getting better. From my review: Lauren Groff is a rule-breaker, a boundary-pusher, a genre-blurrer. There’s nobody else quite like like her writing right now, and she writes on the shoulders of those who came before her… She also writes with a deep appreciation and awe for history, for the role of story within history, and for the epic. Her first novel had a larger-than-lifeness about it, which is not so unusual for a book a writer has been working her life for, but it’s less usual for a second novel and for it to be pulled off so successfully too.
The Forrests by Emily Perkins: One of a number of brilliant books this year that we haven’t heard nearly enough about. From my review: The Forrests is like The Stone Diaries, but edgier, and structured as the interior of its subject’s mind rather than her scrapbooks, and it’s enormously successful. Rachel Cusk, Virginia Woolf. Vividly human characters, gorgeous writing. It’s full of surprises, twists, turns and moments of illumination, quiet but profound in its brilliance, and devastating to have to finally put down.
Swimming Studies by Leanne Shapton: Oh, sweet summer time and this gorgeous book I bought one sweltering day on a walk home from the swimming pool. From my review: Swimming Studies is a difficult book to explain, and I’m glad that I get to review it in my blog so that I don’t necessarily have to. That I can simply say that the whole thing just works, for no reason I can really fathom. Leanne Shapton writes about ponds and pools she has known– the Hampstead Heath Ladies Pond, the pool at the Chateau Laurier, the baths in Bath, and so many others. She writes about morning practice: “Ever present is the smell of chlorine, and the drifting of snow in the dark.” A many-page spread displays her extensive bathing suit collection. She includes drawings of her teenage swim teammates, with brief biographies for each: “I’m not crazy about Stacy since noticing that she copied onto her own shoes the piano keys I drew on the inside of my sneakers.”
Malarky by Anakana Schofield: According to everybody that matters, this was one of the best books of the year, and when it comes out in the UK next year, the whole world is going to know it. From my review: If Hagar Shipley met Stella Gibbons, the end result might be Anakana Schofield’s Malarky, but then again, it probably wouldn’t be, because Malarky refuses to be what you think it is. And moreover, it probably wouldn’t be because the book is meant to be chock-a-block with allusions to James Joyce and Thomas Hardy. Don’t tell anybody, but I still haven’t read Ulysses (and hence the Gibbons instead of the primary sources), but I have read Malarky, and it was brilliant, which I know for certain even with the burden of my literary ignorance. And that I can pronounce a book as wonderful even whilst unable to access its higher planes of greatness is certainly saying something for the book itself, which is mostly, “You’ll like it too.”
The Blondes by Emily Schultz: I devoured this book in a weekend, and as soon as I was finished it, I started to read it again. From my review: Hazel’s few friendships and alliances with women are shattered as individuals try to navigate their respective ways to safety… But Hazel ultimately finds herself entirely powerless to her biological destiny and to patriarchal tyranny when the plague and its circumstances make impossible her choice to terminate her unwanted pregnancy. Schultz shows how change creeps in little by little so that to a feminist academic, lack of access to abortion can become almost remarkable. The Blondes is powerful and solid, gripping and scary.
The Juliet Stories by Carrie Snyder: A wonderful book, and the world thought so too because The Juliet Stories was nominated for a Governor General’s Award this year. I called it “one of the best Canadian books you’re going to read this year,” and as the year draws to a close, I’m standing by that declaration.
Afflictions and Departures by Madeline Sonik: The best part of my life is that I got to spend this year coming up with excuses to put this fantastic book’s cover on the main page of 49thShelf. Winner of the City of Victoria Butler Book Prize and shortlisted for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Non-Fiction. From my review: Sonik stitches her personal stories to the fabric of her time. Her narrative voice is blessed with startling omniscience, with the benefit of hindsight, and with an acute awareness of both how the extraordinary can be illuminated by ordinary detail, and also of how the ordinary and extraordinary are so often intricately connected. Sonik’s prose reveals her poet’s skill, as does these essays’ use of imagery and symbolism, but the broadness of her vision and the deftness with which she fits together surprising pieces of reality is evocative of Joan Didion’s masterful non-fiction.
A Large Harmonium by Sue Sorensen: This book came out last year, but I only discovered it in June, and I’ve been recommending it steadily ever since to readers who have not been disappointed. From my review: Winnipeg resident Sorensen has much in common with Carol Shields, who was another, except that her tone is darker and more overtly hilarious. The novel’s pace is brisk and easy, which is not to say “light”, because there is depth here, but the story goes down just as well. Just as Shields did, Sorensen’s got a grasp on joy and how it factors amidst life’s absurdities. This is a wonderful novel with broad appeal. It’s absolutely the funniest and one of the best books I’ve read in ages.