Every year, I read a pile of books. Most years this is a pretty private affair, save the transactional details between me and my favourite booksellers.
Sometime in 2013, however, I started tweeting my books as I finished them, using the #95books hashtag. If you’re not familiar with the hashtag, it was a creation of Jonathan Ball and Ryan Fitzpatrick. They were irritated that George W. Bush (according to the ever-reliable Karl Rove) had read 95 books in 2008, surpassing the number read by more literate members of academic and literary communities. (Read the history here.)
So here I am in the final days of the year. How’d I do?
Unless I squeeze something short in at the last minute, I’m likely to end the year on my current, 58th, book. Well short of 95, clearly, but I’m content. I likely read more than in previous years, but I think I also succeeded in my commitment to choose from a more diverse selection of writers.
As the year drew to a close, and partly inspired by my exposure to the CWILA counts, I became curious about how successful I’d been at assuring diversity in my reading list. I was pretty sure that I had read much more than just the dead-white-guy selections of my youth, but how well was I really doing? I resolved to count.
So here, book lovers, is my 2014 list. I hope that, as I have had my literary world broadened through my exposure to other readers who share, some of you may also discover new writers through my list.
(I can’t help but notice that Nikki Reimer has also published a year end summary along this line. At first I was wary of appearing a shameless copycat, but in the end I decided to be a shameless copycat and steal her graphs. Thanks Nikki!)
This is probably a fairly typical genre breakdown for me, except for the poetry: this year I read about twelve and a half more poetry books than usual:
I ended up pretty balanced on the male/female binary, with a slight tilt in favour of female writers, though only one known trans*-identified writer:
I don’t like to overemphasise author race as a selector, and thus reinforce otherness in relation to whiteness, but I also wish to ensure that I read beyond the white default that still dominates mainstream attention. It turns out that I slightly favoured writers-of-colour this year. I must admit though that my decision to read only South Asian authors while I was in India last winter helped with the math, if not genuine diversity; so there’s still grounds for conscious effort in 2015:
Here’s why paying attention helps – until I added things up, I would have guessed that I was reading more First Nations writers:
It’s not always entirely apparent who the queer writers are these days, but a good split, I think:
- The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce (2012, novel)
An office worker walks out of his house and then across England, ostensibly to save the life of a former co-worker he hasn’t seen or heard from in two decades. I felt that what was most thought-provoking about it was vaguely sub-textual, but perhaps not necessarily through authorial intent.
- Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard by Kiran Desai (1998, novel)
A postal worker walks out of his house and then into the countryside to take up residence in a guava tree, and becomes a bit of a local celebrity. Apparently inspired by this true story.
- The Village By the Sea by Anita Desai (1982, novel)
A feel-good YA novel about a changing India, in which a young boy flees his hard life in a rural village and goes to Bombay, where he encounters helpful strangers, one of whom teaches him watch repair. Emboldened with new skills and confidence, he returns home with enthusiasm for the future.
- Broken Ties by Rabindranath Tagore (1925, short fiction)
A collection of short fiction, much of which didn’t stick in my memory as much as Tagore’s novel (The Home and the World) that I’d read toward the end of 2013. The title story is a critique of dogmatic religious faith.
- One Night @ the Call Center by Chetan Bhagat (2005, novel)
I thought it would be prudent to read something written in the current century by younger writers more in tune with contemporary India, and what’s more current than young people working a call centre? In this story-in-a-story, several young people stuck in a life-threatening situation receive a call from God, who offers all kinds of timely advice about navigating rapidly modernising middle-class India.
- Coolie by Mulk Raj Anand (1936, novel)
In this critique of British rule and the caste system, a fourteen year old boy named Munoo is forced to leave his beloved hill village to take up work in slave-like conditions in the city, as a domestic servant, a coolie, a factory worker, and a rickshaw puller. I accidentally stole this book from a guest house I was visiting (sorry, Rosi!), but I enjoyed it fully and then mailed it back to her from Delhi.
- The 3 Mistakes of My Life by Chetan Bhagat (2008, novel)
While Bhagat’s novels aren’t exceptional literature (they seem more intended to be used as fuel for screenplays), I enjoyed this one more than One Night @ the Call Center, mainly because it dealt with a more compelling subject: the Gujarati riots of 2002, although changing middle-class values and cricket are also dominant themes. One might interpret the Bittoo Mama and Parekh-ji thread as a critique of Narendra Modi and the Hindu nationalist movement.
- Interpreter of Maladies: Stories of Bengal, Boston and Beyond by Jhumpa Lahiri (1999, novel)
Lahiri was born in London to Bengali parents and has lived in the US eastern seaboard since she was two, and her stories – set in both India and the US – reflect her cross-cultural experience.
- The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh (2005, novel)
Set in the tidal mangroves of the Bay of Bengal, The Hungry Tide is mostly an adventure-love story, though it culminates in the Marichjhanpi massacre, triggered by the effects of colonialism, partition, and the machinations of Indian politics. I enjoyed it more than I expected, and much of the imagery remains with me still.
- The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (2013, novel)
This turned out to be a good complement to Ghosh. Also set in the region of the Ganges delta, it tells of two close brothers who grow apart. One moves to America to become a scientist, the other remains in Calcutta and becomes a Naxalite (a sort of communist guerilla), with tragic consequences. Like many of the books I read in India, it was a good gateway to histories to which I’d not previously been exposed.
- How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid (2013, novel)
A novel styled after a self-help text and written in second person sounds risky, but actually it was pretty good. The setting is unstated, but is presumed to be modern urban Pakistan.
- children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections by Renée Sarojini Saklikar (2013, poetry)
82 of the 329 people who died in the Air India bombing were children, and these poems are an elegy to them. The first work of poetry in response to the disaster, Renee’s work is more modern/experimental than traditional/lyric, and very readable.
- Limiters by Christopher Stoddard (2014, novel)
Upon returning from India I was commissioned by Lambda to review this novel. Decidedly experimental, I can’t say that I enjoyed it, exactly, but it was interesting and memorable.
- Islands of Decolonial Love by Leanne Simpson (2013, short fiction)
One of the few books this year that I plan to re-read, Simpson’s book of poetic short stories is about First Nations people and communities throughout this place we call Canada. It is paired online with a nine-track album of poetry set to music (some are pieces from the book) which you can listen to or download here.
- Capitalism: A Ghost Story by Arundhati Roy (2014, non-fiction)
Roy argues that rather than freeing all people, unregulated global capitalism is increasingly subjugating most to the benefit of the (very) few. Primary focus is India, but universally relevant.
- A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood (1967, novel)
I’ve liked some of Isherwood’s other work so, in conjunction with my interest in India, I picked this up at Macleod’s during a book binge. Unfortunately, it suffers from some rather disappointing colonial and racist stereotypes that aren’t noticeably doing any critical work.
- Mercenary English by Mercedes Eng (2013, poetry)
The best-titled book on this list, for sure, Eng’s poetry is powerfully and appropriately angry about, among other subjects, Canada’s missing and murdered aboriginal women.
- Red Girl Rat Boy by Cynthia Flood (2013, short fiction)
I bought Vancouver author Flood’s collection in what is said to be the world’s oldest bookstore, Bertrand’s, in Lisbon this summer.
- Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes (2014, fiction)
This one I bought in the Frankfurt airport for airplane reading. In it, Adolf Hitler wakes up on a patch of open ground, alive and well, and becomes a YouTube celebrity, though he misunderstands why. An amusing and surprisingly inoffensive critique of contemporary celebrity culture.
- Roving Pack by Sassafras Lowrey (2012, fiction)
At times, this story of a transgender kid perilously navigating Portland’s street punk scene irritated me, but I suspect that that was a usefully challenge-making response, given my place in the world. I’d read more by Lowrey.
- I’m Not Scared of You or Anything by Jon Paul Fiorentino (2014, short fiction)
Funny and serious short fictions featuring oddball people, if I remember correctly.
- The $100 Startup by Chris Guillebeau (2012, non-fiction)
I read this looking for alternatives to the Boring Dead-End Job, but so far it hasn’t triggered any (practical) entrepreneurial lightning bolts. Instead, I’ve so far incurred about $350 in expenses while navigating the glacially-slow hiring process of a local institution at which I’m trying to become indentured. Watch for my new book, The $500 Wage Slave.
- Waiting for Saskatchewan by Fred Wah (1985, poetry)
Wah’s poetic narrative about complicated identity and his immigrant-identified (though half Scots) prairie upbringing, different from but similar to his 1996 Diamond Grill, which I’d read first.
- The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks (2004, non-fiction)
I have to confess, I skimmed a large chunk of this book. I want to like hooks’ writing more than I did, for I suspect that I agree fundamentally with her mission, but I found this book rather dispiriting. Perhaps it might have been better titled with the colon relocated: The Will to Change Men: Masculinity and Love.
- Designation Youth by David Bateman (2014, poetry)
Things labelled “poetry” are often a challenge for me, despite my ongoing effort to understand and come to appreciate. Bateman’s is perhaps prosaic enough to help me along, but it also helps that at least some of his themes are often things to which I can relate, and humour with undertones of tragedy help, too.
- Seva by Sharanpal Ruprai (2014, poetry)
Sharanpal’s lovely poems relate the experience of a girl being raised in a Sikh family and the shifting values between genders and generations.
- I Love Dick by Chris Kraus (1997, fiction)
Some combination of fiction and memoir. Woman, with husband’s help, attempts to seduce husband’s colleague through what might be considered obsessive stalking. The writing of the letters was fun, but later I felt more disturbed. Perhaps I was supposed to be. Imagine the reception had Dick been a Jane? Still, challenges preconceptions, and certainly original.
- The Outer Harbour: Stories by Wayde Compton (2014, short fiction)
A very likeable book from a very likeable person. Often, a book set in my own city seems disappointingly familiar, but Wayde succeeds at making the terrain fresh through compelling characters and ideas, introduced geography, and experiments with form.
- I Loved You More by Tom Spanbauer (2014, fiction)
A big story from Portland’s almost cultishly popular proponent of Dangerous Writing. Though there was a stretch in the second half when it seemed a bit too long, it’s one of those novels that can keep you awake past bedtime.
- Sex Magick by Ian Young (1986, poetry)
This book drew my attention – mainly because of its apparent connection with radical faeriedom – when I was at the STAG in Vancouver, where I read the first few pages before a chapbook launch. Later, I ordered a copy from someone on Abebooks.
- Impact: The Titanic Poems by Billeh Nickerson (2012, poetry)
Vancouverite Nickerson’s typically brief and snappy style applied to the doomed ship and its passengers.
- Amor De Cosmos: Journalist and Reformer by George Woodcock (1975, non-fiction)
The story of British Columbia’s kooky second premier, who set the bar for all the kooks who’d hold the position down the road.
- Coping With Emotions and Otters by Dina Del Bucchia (2013, poetry)
Another Vancouverite, this is Del Bucchia’s book first book of poetry.
- Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay (2014, non-fiction)
Essays on feminism and culture. They didn’t all work well for me, but overall I’m happy to read what Gay has to say. I hate Tumblr (except for specialised amateur gay porn, of course), but that’s where you can find more of her.
- The Things I Heard About You by Alex Leslie (2014, poetry)
Sort of like those précis exercises we did in high school English. Except, you know, smart. Leslie’s language is thick, meaningful, tactile.
- Funny Boy by Shyam Selvadurai (1994, fiction)
A coming-of-age story about a young Sri Lankan homosexual. Set in the 70s and 80s, it culminates in the anti-Tamil riots of 1983.
- The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007, fiction)
Semi-autobiographical novel intended for a YA audience. A young man fights for a different future than the seemingly predetermined destiny for a reservation-born American Indian.
- Personals by Ian Williams (2012, poetry)
Poems about love, and not about love, modelled on personal and I-saw-you ads, by the current University of Calgary Writer-in-Residence (but otherwise Torontonian).
- Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (2011, fiction)
Set mostly in Berlin and Paris in the lead up to and during the second world war, it’s the story of blues musicians dealing with racism as well as their own conflicts. I’m loathe to name favourites, but this one would be a candidate for most satisfying novel this year if I did.
- DOWNVERSE by Nikki Reimer (2014, poetry)
I don’t ‘get’ all of the work by happening young people that addresses contemporary things like technology and its misuse these days <shakes jowls>, but I like to think that I get and appreciate Nikki’s. This is another book that I’ll revisit.
- In Between Dreams by Iman Verjee (2014, fiction)
I heard Verjee read at WordFest this year, and I was a bit sceptical when I heard her describe her novel as being sympathetic to the pedophilic perpetrator, and asked her after the reading whether she’d received any critical feedback. Upon reading the book, though, I had a better idea of what she meant: sympathetic need not mean apologist or defensive, but simply helpful in understanding, and therefore, perhaps, prevention.
- The Ever After of Ashwin Rao by Padma Viswanathan (2014, fiction)
I read this expecting it to be a bit of a companion to Renée Saklikar’s children of air india, and it was, though somewhat less satisfying overall. It was an interesting story that held my attention, and Viswanathan folded in well many facts and ideas about the bombing, but I felt it contained a few too many implausibly convenient plot turns to make it a Giller candidate. Nevertheless, worth the read.
- A Recipe for Disaster & Other Unlikely Tales of Love by Eufemia Fantetti (2013, short fiction)
An amusing and sensitive collection of stories about the frailty of humans and their relationships, by amusing and sensitive Toronto (and formerly temporarily Vancouver) writer Fantetti.
- Landscapes of Dissent: Guerrilla Poetry and Public Space by Jules Boykoff & Kaia Sand (2008, non-fiction)
A photo/essay about poetry as political statement in public space.
- For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu (2014, fiction)
Though a CIS writer, Kim Fu’s story about a boy who wants to be a girl, but is the only son in a family full of daughters, is thoughtful and believable. It’s also equally a story about a working-class Chinese immigrant family experience.
- Bastard out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison (1992, fiction)
In my ongoing search for more fiction that originates from a working-class experience, written by working-class writers, I was recommended this by a friend. Now practically a classic, it’s a semi-autobiographical story of a girl who is born in poverty to an unwed mother in 1940s South Carolina.
- Role Models by John Waters (2011, non-fiction)
A collection of memoirs by the maker of Pink Flamingos, in which he talks about people who have been influential to him in various ways, some of whom are interesting, and some of whom are a bit repulsive. Made me long once again for a new wardrobe from Comme des Garçons.
- Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera (2015, fiction)
I received an advance copy of this thin novel translated from the Spanish that reads a bit like dystopic speculative magical realist fiction. The story centres around a young woman who travels across the US/Mexico border illegally, for an illicit purpose.
- Marcel Proust: A Life by Edmund White (2009, non-fiction)
A brief biography from the Penguin Lives series.
- One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery by Karyn L. Freedman (2014, non-fiction)
Another WordFest author, I actually heard her read from the book at two different events (I was a volunteer bookseller). It’s truly a disturbing story, but the most triggering content is described in the first chapter. Much of the rest of the book is about the aftermath, and Freedman’s path of recovery.
- Skids by Cathleen With (2006, short fiction)
The title, I believe, is a portmanteau of “street” and “kids”, two things that shouldn’t go together but do with depressing and tragic regularity. Skids is a collection of vaguely linked stories that depict that tragedy from the perspective of the kids. It sounds bleak, and it is generally, but there’s also some humour and hope to it.
- Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit (2014, non-fiction)
More essays on the subject of feminism. I particularly found the one about Virginia Woolf interesting.
- Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien (2011, fiction)
A Cambodian girl’s suffering and ultimate escape (at least physically) from the Khmer Rouge, told within a story about her later life in Montreal. A much more pleasant read than it sounds. Another of my candidates for most satisfying of this year’s novels.
- Timely Irreverence by Jay MillAr (2013, poetry)
Poems by Toronto poet and BookThug co-publisher Jay MillAr.
- The Jesus Year by Jani Krulc (2013, short fiction)
The title is a reference to one’s 33rd birthday. I don’t remember mine, which is odd, since I was probably dressed up as Jesus at the time. Nevertheless, unlike the one true god I made it way past 33⅓, long enough to enjoy Krulc’s stories, which depict the everyday absurdities of being human.
- Trout Fishing in America by Richard Brautigan (1967, fiction)
Fiction that reads like poetry. Mostly short pieces through which thematic repetition runs. A rather abstract narrative. Curiously satisfying, though occasionally you have to be tolerant of the race and gender politic of the era.
- Tsubaki by Aki Shimazaki (2000, fiction)
A story of betrayal and vengeance set against the nuclear blast that destroyed Nagasaki in 1945.
- Elements by Robert Glück (2013, short fiction)
Originally published in 1982 as Elements of a Coffee Service, Glück’s stories are erotic, humorous, exploratory, philosophical, and experimental.