Friday, January 1, 2010

Books I Read This Year that You Should Read Too

Okay, so here's my roundup, broken down by genre and organized alphabetically. I didn't read nearly as many books as I usually do this year, in large measure because I was reading a lot of stuff online and in manuscript. I hope to read more books in 2010, but increasingly find I have to make the time for it.



George MacKay Brown, Beside the Ocean of Time. Please overlook the horrible title. I read this Booker-winning novel while staying in a stone cottage across the square from Brown's old apartment in Stromness, Orkney. It has weak spots, but overall a very moving kunstlerroman.

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. I read Bulgakov's short novel Heart of a Dog in undergrad and loved it, but it's nowhere near as brilliant as this masterpiece of satire. Absolutely wild book.

William Faulkner, Light in August. Great novel. It took me a while, after reading The Sound and the Fury in undergrad, to come back to Faulkner, but I'm so glad I did. An incredible stylist and an epic imagination. This book is a precocious look at black-white tensions in the US south and is full of narrative drama. It's also quite a bit more straightforward (i.e. less polyvocal) than other Faulkner stories.

Rawi Hage, Deniro's Game. The only Canadian novel I read in 2009, I came to it after reading the equally brilliant Cockroach. Is there anyone writing fiction as audacious and tough as Hage's? If so, please point them out to me.

Knut Hamsun, Pan. A taut and pyschologically intense little novel about a reclusive soldier/hunter and the tempestuous relationship he has with a young woman. This is the first Hamsun novel I've read, after meaning to for many years. I'll be reading more.

Imre Kertesz, Fatelessness. This is the second Kertesz novel I've read (the other being Liquidation) and I'll be reading more. An unflinching portrait of one young man's experience in Nazi concentration camps, it resists the easy answers and binary thinking that must be so tempting when writing about such subjects. Very powerful.

Halldor Laxness, The Atom Station. I'll read anything by Laxness. A sharp satirical novel about what was, at its time of writing, contemporary Iceland. Every one of Laxness' books that I've read has been markedly different from the others. This isn't on the same level as Independent People, Iceland's Bell or World Light, but still a great read.

Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing. I've been reading a fair bit of McCarthy lately. This is the second book in the Border Trilogy, but can be read on its own. Truly epic story of a boy who traps a wolf on his father's Texas ranch and winds up taking the wolf back to Mexico, whence it came. Over the course of the book, the boy, as he ages, makes several trips back and forth across the border. Beautiful writing, as one expects from McCarthy, but not much of the over-the-top excess that mars Blood Meridian.

Yukio Mishima, After the Banquet. I love Mishima; he's the sort of novelist I read once every year or two, wanting to save his work so it lasts longer. This is a pyschologically piercing story of a successful, ambitious middle-aged female restaurateur who falls in love with an older retired politician. The two are, in many ways, opposites and when she involves herself in his campaign for election, things come to a dramatic head. Mishima's ability to write convincingly of a female protagonist is truly remarkable.

Non Fiction

Amir Aczel, Pendulum. Leon Foucault and the Triumph of Science. Fascinating book about the massive contributions to science made by the "amateur" Foucault.

Kathryn Borel, Corked. One always reads books by friends and acquaintances with trepidation, but I soon got over it with Kathryn's memoir of a wine tour in France with her eccentric French oenophile father. There are a few passing instances of strained over-writing to be found in Corked, but it's hilarious and poignantly moving by turns, and has a wicked surprise denouement.

Bruce Chatwin, Anatomy of Restlessness. A somewhat uneven gathering of selected prose. Well worth reading for its highlights. Chatwin had a brilliant mind.

Robert Dessaix. The Twilight of Love: Travels with Turgenev. Unorthodox work of travel writing and literary criticism, much like similar works by Geoff Dyer. I've never read Turgenev and am not sure I want to after reading this book, but it's hardly a pre-requisite. The Twilight of Love stands alone beautifully.

Jared Diamond, Collapse. Great book about how societies succeed and fail. Looking at case studies from the distant past to the present, Diamond has excellent insights into what we might do to avoid catastrophe in the decades to come.

Czeslaw Milosz: The Captive Mind. A penetrating behind-the-iron-curtain look at the psychology and public roles of artists in totalitarian societies.

Edwin Muir, An Autobiography. I read this in preparation for my trip to Scotland, and I'm glad I did. I've read few autobiographies so stoic and honest. It helps that Muir led a very interesting, parapatetic existence. Highly recommended.

Shane Neilson, ed. Approaches to Poetry: The Pre-Poem Moment. I have a copy of this book because I contributed a poem and essay to it. The assignment was to choose a poem of my own and to write an essay explaining how the poem came about. I have to admit that I was leery of doing so, as writing critically about one's own poem can impose a reading on it that can be hard to shake. And I'm of the school that believes that if a poem can't stand on its own, then it can't be that good; a poem, to borrow from Peter Van Toorn, "like a bronze pope ... salutes no one." But I wound up writing something I'm actually quite pleased with. And, with the exception of a couple of duds, this anthology is full of such surprises.

Maryanne Wolf, Proust and the Squid. A fascinating book about reading, filled with scientifically-informed insights into the hows, whens and whys of learning this most unnatural of skills.


John Berryman, 77 Dream Songs. I'd read excerpts of this classic book many times, but this is the first time I sat down and read it thru. Love it. I'll be reading more Berryman in months to come. It's a bit of a mystery why this work should so often be lumped in with the "confessional" mode because it's so much broader than that.

Walid Bitar, The Empire's Missing Links. Bitar's a hard poet to pin down and I think he likes it that way. Both "traditional" and "experimental," these are poems that make you confront them on their own terms. What those terms are is hard to figure out, but is well worth the effort. Reviewed in Arc.

Robert Bringhurst, Selected Poems. Of all the poets associated with the eco-poetry school in Canada, Bringhurst is the most consistently impressive. Not all of his work rings my bell, but there is nothing sloppy about any of it. And the best is as good as anything that's been written here over the last few decades. The polyphonic poems that occupy a hefty section of this book are very hard to read on one's own; they really seem to be begging for a top-notch audio publication. Reviewed in Arc.

Gerry Cambridge, Aves. A beautiful little book I picked up at the Scottish Poetry Library in Edinburgh, this is a sequence of prose poems about specific bird species. Very much in the tradition of John Clare's close, naturalistic observation, these poems come far closer to the ideals of nature poetry than Don McKay's veiled autobiographies could ever hope to.

Wayne Clifford, Learning to Dance with a Peg Leg: Three Dozen Tunes for a Third Mate and Jane Again. Wayne's a good friend of mine and one of the most inventive poets going. Peg Leg is an older book, but only recently published as a gorgeous ltd. ed. production by Frog Hollow Press. The poems are fun and tender and full, as one expects with Wayne, of musical verve. Jane Again is Wayne's re-imagining of Yeats' Crazy Jane character. This book contains some of my very favourite of Wayne's poems, including the unforgettable "Jane Testifies." I had a bit of a hand in matching book to publisher, of which I'm very proud.

Joe Denham, Windstorm. I've been having arguments lately about this book. It's very different from Denham's debut, Flux, which made a big impression when it came out in 2003 and garnered him several anthologizations. I think it's a big leap forward, a gutsy move away from some of the more juvenile content of his first book. Others think it's a giant misstep. It's bound to polarise people, I think, because, as one long poem sequence, it's not really possible to like part of it and hate other parts, as I did with Flux. I think it's one of the very best books of poetry published last year, but it isn't an easy read, being syntactically dense and sinuous. As a personal and political/ecological meditation, it draws more on Dante, Rilke and Hopkins, as well as on Denham's actual firsthand frontline experience as a fisherman and timber framer, than it does on trendy concerns. Review forthcoming in Quill & Quire.

Jeramy Dodds, Crabwise to the Hounds. Jeramy's a good friend of mine and I had a bit of an editorial hand in a few of these poems, so I was glad to see it get so much attention. That attention can be a bit of a curse, tho: how can a book possibly live up to that much hype. Ultimately, I don't think it does, but I still think it's a remarkably good debut and one that certainly stands out from the crowd. I think it will be eclipsed, however, by the work Jeramy's doing now translating the Norse Edda.

Catherine Graham, Pupa. An underrated poet; the super-compressed lyrics of this book make a most unusual music and are quite convincing treatments of grief.

Jason Guriel, Pure Product. Following a solid but unexceptional debut, Guriel really comes into his own in this book. Sharp, zippy little poems in a sharp, zippy little book. The poem's economy belies their intellectual expansiveness. And they're fun! One of the most purely entertaining books of verse I read this year.

Jen Hadfield, Nigh-No-Place. I picked this book up while holidaying in Scotland--only to discover that Hadfield is a secret Canadian. The book's been enormously successful, netting its young author a coveted TS Eliot Prize. And it's well-deserved. I love the vernacular earthiness and formal inventiveness of Hadfield's poems. And I expect the best is yet to come from her. (Read my post on Hadfield here.)

James Langer, Gun Dogs. This book got a bit of tough love from Carmine Starnino in the Globe and Mail. I think Carmine's points were valid, but I still found this to be one of the most exciting debuts of the year. Reviewed in Quill & Quire.

David Manicom, Desert Rose, Butterfly Storm. It took me a while to warm up to this book. I love Manicom's older work, and this is a radical departure from it: overtly political and unabashedly angry. It's a very personal book too, in the form of a letter to a son who's shipped off to Afghanistan. The book's not flawless by any stretch and the rhetoric does at times overwhelm the poetry, but on the whole a powerful work.

Les Murray, The Biplane Houses. I find Murray uneven, but terrific at his best. This book is no exception. But if you're looking for something beyond short lyrics, I can't recommend highly enough his verse novel Fredy Neptune.

Lisa Robertson, Lisa Robertson's Magenta Soul Whip. I'd say this book was a pleasant surprise, but I quite liked its predecessor, The Men, as well. Another poet who renders all the silly talk about traditional/experimental, formal/innovative, etc. irrelevant. There is poetry and there is non-poetry. And Robertson writes the former, however dense and elliptical it might sometimes be. Reviewed in Quill & Quire.

Damian Rogers, Paper Radio. I read this for review and will be re-reading closely soon before I start writing. I love the variety of voices, the mix of play and serious, the range of technique. Everything a first book of poems should be.

Robyn Sarah, Pause for Breath. I'm a long-time admirer of Robyn Sarah's poetry. It is often tempting to slam "domestic verse" as a genre for being boring and narcissistically inward, but poetry like Robyn's is a reminder that in poetry it's not so much the subject matter as the approach a poet takes that matters. And Robyn's verse is always, first and foremost, musical. One poem of hers especially, "Echoes in November," caught my eye and ear when it appeared in Arc. I was prompted by it to write a lengthy essay, which you can read in Arc 63, which is on newsstands now.

Frederick Seidel, Ooga-Booga. I'm still not sure what to make of this book. I posted a link a while ago to a sceptical review of Seidel's oeuvre by Ange Mlinko and she made very convincing arguments. But a lot of lines and images from Ooga-Booga have stuck with me months after first reading them. Anyone with the audacity to write a line like "I bought the racer to erase her" has my attention.

Karen Solie, Pigeon. Solie has been going from strength to strength, it seems to me. There are a few soft spots in this book, but overall it might be her best yet. There's an excellent review of her oeuvre-to-date by James Pollock in Arc 63, which I highly recommend you check out. Reviewed in Quill & Quire.

Carmine Starnino, This Way Out. Carmine's been getting better and better from book to book, I think, and it gladdened me much to see it widely acknowledged this year, as This Way Out was shortlisted for a GG and has been named a favourite by many poets and bloggers, many of whom you wouldn't expect to cotton to a book by him. Maybe a sign that our poetry culture is growing up a bit and getting tired of its old binary oppositions.

Souvankham Thammavongsa, Small Arguments and Found. I was surprised I liked these books as much as I did. I'm normally not at all into minimalist poetry and ST is as minimalist as they come. But the work earns its place on the page brilliantly. For an extended treatment of her work, see my review essay in Arc 62. Also, see my earlier post on her here.

George Whipple: Tom Thomson and Other Poems and Origins. Whipple's a sorely underrated senior poet. He started publishing late and what he published--baroque, playful, exuberant--so little resembled the work of his contemporaries that he has been widely ignored. That should stop. Seek out these books and you'll be pleasantly surprised, I think.

David Zieroth, The Fly in Autumn. While I was rooting for Carmine Starnino to win the GG this year, I'm glad to see at least that it was won by a credible book. This is another one I'll be re-reading before reviewing, but the first impression was great. I especially like the eighteen-line rhyming poems scattered throughout the book, something of a surprise from Zieroth, known more for his work in the free-verse lyrical/anecdotal mode. There are some fine poems of that sort in TFiA, as well, but it's refreshing to see a senior poet still experimenting and trying out new things.


Professor Batty said...

+1 on Halldór Laxness. If you can find a copy, The Happy Warriors and Salka Valka are both tremendous.

Zachariah Wells said...

Thanks for the tip, I'll keep an eye out for them.