Another year, another stack of #95books, or as near to it as I get. The stack is notably smaller than last year. One reason is that I have been working more, but another reason is that I have been reading far more periodicals, thanks to the ongoing political train wrecks happening around the world, but especially south of the 49th parallel. Yet another reason still is that I have written a lot more, which is a good thing, but naturally draws from available reading time. You won’t see any of that, though, as it’s all on loose-leaf paper in a filing cabinet (some 350 pages so far), waiting to be… something.
I don’t plan my reading (much). When I finish a book I choose my next title ‘on the fly’ from my to-be-read shelf, which is always full since books come in faster than I read them. I hope you’ll be inspired to read something from this list too.
Here they are:
1. Hornito: My Lie Life by Mike Albo (Fiction, Jan 6)
As the subtitle implies, this fictionalish memoir by Mike Albo is about a young man named Mike Albo. He takes a break from New York’s East Village gay scene to visit his family in suburban Virginia and relates a version of his coming of age of unknown (but perhaps prototypical) veracity.
2. Living Room by Allan Weiss (Short fiction, Jan 12)
A collection of linked short fiction by a York University professor who grew up in Montreal’s Côte des Neiges neighbourhood. It is there that Weiss’s stories are set, and feature a young man named Lawrence Teitel. Pleasant fuel for the curious Jewophila I acquired in my own childhood.
3. Some Extremely Boring Drives by Marguerite Pigeon (Short fiction, Jan 20)
It’s unlikely that many will write about this book without mentioning its unlikely title, and here I am doing it too. The key, perhaps, is to interpret “boring” in the drilling sense rather than the yawning one, for these short stories bore well into their characters’ characters.
4. Stoner by John Williams (Fiction, Feb 05)
This isn’t a book that I might have picked up on my own, had I randomly come across it in a bookstore, but it was given to me as a birthday gift last year by a Calgary friend. Simply, it’s a story about a farm boy from rural Missouri whose parents send him to college to study agriculture, where he discovers literature, switches his major, eventually takes a PhD in English, and then spends his entire career at the same university. There’s a lot more than that embedded in it, and I appreciated the class and personality dynamics (though perhaps the female characters lack dimension). Published in 1965 (and reissued in 2006), the writing style is either old-world or refreshingly unburdened with the some of the literary affectations of the present, depending on your bias.
5. How to Make Love to a Negro Without Getting Tired by Dany Laferrière (trans. David Homel) (Fiction, Feb 17)
Perhaps deliberately intended to generate controversy, this apparently somewhat autobiographically-inspired novel (and subsequent film) by Montreal writer Laferrière succeeded, in that some reviewers or advertisers wouldn’t print the full title, and even the NAACP was said to be opposed to it (the film). In part a satirical comment about the supposed sexual rapaciousness of African-American men that has long been an element of racist imagination.
6. Dirty River: A Queer Femme of Color Dreaming Her Way Home by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (Memoir, Mar 7)
Among the more satisfying of the selections from the POC/survivor/activist sub-genre (if I may simplistically categorise it thus), and this Vancouver Sun review sums it up well: In rapid fire, intensely felt and perfectly controlled prose, the activist/poet/survivor evokes the terrors and pleasures of life in the pockets of counter culture, gender rebellion and anti-racist groups she found in Toronto and details her painful process of reflection and eventual self acceptance. The authorial voice is propulsive, eloquent and absolutely persuasive. Piepzna-Samarasinha is particularly good at conveying what it is like to live in poverty and political enthusiasm in a marginalized subculture and generously invites the reader to participate in that experience.
7. Not Anyone’s Anything by Ian Williams (Short fiction, Mar 18)
Williams was one of the first people I met when I moved to Calgary, and I was envious when his temporary tenure at the university ended and he returned to Toronto. (He has since rubbed even more salt into my festering wound by moving to Vancouver, but I’m not bitter. Much.) Anyway, that doesn’t have much to do with his book, but it was readily apparent that he’s a clever fellow, for which this collection of stories provides further evidence. There’s a sharpness to his sentences; they seem casual, but have impact, individually, and in aggregate. His characters can be likeable and frightening. I’m looking forward to his novel.
8. An Unrestored Woman by Shobha Rao (Short fiction, Mar 22)
A collection of twelve stories (paired in groups of two) set in India during partition, when as many as ten million people were displaced, one million died, and some 80,000 women were abducted. Her stories tell of the violence of that time, at the individual level, especially that experienced by women and children.
9. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (Fiction, Apr 18)
Oscar is a nerdy, overweight, expatriate young man of Dominican origin living in New Jersey and who spends time in the Dominican Republic as part of his recovery from adolescence. There’s so much to it that I can’t hope to summarise it briefly, but it is both complex and fun. Unlike most works of fiction, it features extensive footnotes that are essential and pleasant reading. Among the byproducts is learning something about the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo (an aspect that may increase its contemporary value).
10. She of the Mountains by Vivek Shraya (Fiction, Apr 19)
Dual storylines, one based on Hindu mythology, the other more earthly (based on Shraya’s own life, likely), this unconventional, poetic novel examines gender, race, queerness, and plain old human experience. (With illustrations by Raymond Biesinger).
11. The Translation of Love by Lynne Kutsukake (Fiction, Apr 23)
A novel about a young girl, Aya Shimamura, who is sent with her parents from Vancouver to an interior internment camp during the second world war. Following the war (during which her mother died), Aya’s father, who is prohibited from returning to the west coast, agrees to be deported to occupied Japan, where Aya (now 13) is treated like a pariah in school. An awkward friendship is made with Fumi, a classmate, who wants Aya’s help to find Fumi’s sister, with General George MacArthur’s help. Interesting look at early Japanese postwar society.
12. God Loves Hair by Vivek Shraya (Short fiction, May 1)
Shraya’s YA collection of short stories, with illustrations by Juliana Neufeld. Because who doesn’t love hair? Actually, this collection of stories about not conforming, though strongly in relation to race, gender, and sexual identity, has a universality for the adolescent experience of the outsider.
13. American Romances: Essays by Rebecca Brown (Non-fiction, May 3)
I attended a lit event in Oregon, I think, at which Brown was a speaker (I think I may even have shared a dinner table with her), and thus impressed with her talk was motivated to add her title to my pile at the book table. To be honest, I don’t recall a great deal of the substance of these essays now, almost eight months later, except that Nathaniel Hawthorne and Puritanism were ingredients. That’s no slight to Brown – more an indication of my lack of easy connection with the variety of American culture she’s examining. Or just poor memory.
14. even this page is white by Vivek Shraya (Poetry, May 10)
Poetry with a short mid-book interview in which racism is the dominant subject. It’s the sort of thing that I, and many working-class white folks, find difficult (“racism and poetry?!?”). It’s easy to choose something else to do besides have my defensive buttons pushed, but I choose to experience the discomfort. It isn’t always obvious, but there’s usually at least a kernel of growth, too, if I try to find it.
15. Venous Hum by Suzette Mayr (Fiction, May 10)
Two women, Lai Fun Kugelheim and Stefanja Dumanowski, organise a twenty year high school reunion following the death of a classmate that no one had kept in touch with. The title refers to the sound of your own blood flowing through its veins. Mayr is, I can see, one of those writers whose future books I’ll be awaiting.
16. The Last Communist Virgin by Wang Ping (Short fiction, May 20)
These linked-but-standalone short stories, set in the US and in China, depict the transition of two sisters from Cultural Revolution China to New York, and the many hardships encountered in both places.
17. Throw It to the River by Nice Rodriguez (Short fiction, May 29)
Set in the Philippines and in Canada, these short stories are about queer Filipinas, buch-femme identity, and gender diversity in an environment of poverty, colonialism, and the Marcos regime.
18. God in Pink by Hasan Namir (Fiction, Jun 6)
Set in Iraq during the US occupation in 2003, this novel is about Ramy, a university student coming to terms with his homosexuality in a religious Muslim culture. His parents dead, Ramy is dependent on his older brother and sister-in-law, who are determined to see him married. I found my disbelief somewhat difficult to suspend in parts (especially related to the conservative sheikh at the mosque whom Ramy approaches for counsel) but this was overcome by my interest in the complexities of an Iraq about which I know so little, and the quality of the writing. The appearance of the angel Gabriel – as an agent of God – to petition the sheikh in favour of homosexuality was also an interesting element.
19. The Book of Salt by Monique Truong (Fiction, Jun 16)
Quite a satisfying novel, set in 1930s Paris, about a young Vietnamese cook named Binh, driven from his home by his father after being publicly denounced, who takes to sea, ends up in Paris, and is eventually employed by Alice B. Toklas to prepare meals for her and Gertrude Stein. Binh’s descriptions of Stein’s salons and the people who visit is ‘fly on the wall’ interesting, enhanced by Truong’s not naming most of the visitors described.
20. A Tale of Love and Darkness by Amos Oz (trans. Nicholas De Lange) (Jun 27)
I’d started this book in 2013, and then in some burst of disastrous attention span, put it aside for a while, until I picked it up again this year. It’s not a book you read on the beach while glancing at every Speedo that strolls by, it commands much more sustained attention, and I didn’t have it then (I’m not sure that I have it now, but stubbornness won out). Oz’s (mostly?) autobiographical novel relates, in great detail, his childhood that began shortly before the state of Israel was born, and includes historical background on his family’s eastern European origins, and the complexities of Zionism, early Israeli politics, and the many people in Oz’s family and political lives. Oz’s mother’s suicide when he was twelve is, perhaps, the core around which this book is written. A fascinating read.
21. U Girl by Meredith Quartermain (Fiction, Jun 29)
One of my favourite literary Vancouverites has constructed a novel within a novel, set in Vancouver in 1972. That was the same year that I, aged eight, was moved to a small(er) town and thus missed out on the radical cultural influences of the era (though to what extent, or in what way, I’d have been influenced at that age is unknowable). The U Girl of the title is Frances, who escapes small town life to become an undergrad at UBC, where she begins to write about the people with whom she comes of age. Simple but complex and thought-provoking, utterly plausible and memorable.
22. The Child by Sarah Schulman (Fiction, Jul 5)
Schulman isn’t reluctant to take on controversial subjects that others avoid, and this is a good example. The story is about a 15 year old named Stew who uses the internet to seek out an adult male lover. The lover and his partner are subsequently charged with child molestation, Stew is stripped of agency by authorities and his family, and Stew’s subsequent emotional trauma triggers a psychological breakdown that sees him murder his young nephew.
23. Lust & Wonder by Augusten Burroughs (Memoir, Jul 11)
Usually, if I feel underwhelmed by a book, or even actively dislike one, I try to focus briefly on something I can feel charitable about and move on. In this case, however, I hated this book so much that I don’t think I can avoid saying so (note: I read an advance copy, but I can’t imagine that there were modifications substantive enough to counter my revulsion).
Burroughs is a memoirist. Arguably, he’s had some things worth remembering publicly: a horror story of a childhood (Running with Scissors, 2002) and his recovery from addiction (Dry, 2003). I can see what Burroughs fans like about him. He writes about his past traumas with candour and a self-deprecating wit that gives him a common genuineness that, perhaps, people find relatable.
This time, though, Burroughs appears to have crossed the line from trauma memoir to evidence of psychological unbalance that makes me question everything he’s written previously. That famous self-deprecation now seems like a tactical emotional manipulation to see the writer’s psychosis for sincerity. I can’t imagine why Macmillan agreed to publish this, except that there’s sure money to be made on over-hyped celebrity (and, oh yeah, he’s sleeping with his agent). Fifty pages in I’d had enough but pushed on, as I suspected that some development would arise to make it all worthwhile. Alas, when I finally trudged to the last word on page 295, that moment had never arrived.
Mind you, I’m just one voice and his cheering fans are legion, so maybe I’m wrong. For a more enthusiastic opinion The New York Times was much kinder.
24. Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (Fiction, Jul 29)
Thien’s Giller and GG winner is, in Penguin’s words, “the story of three musicians in China before, during and after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.” Epic in scope, crossing generations, oceans, and cultures, a very satisfying read and, perhaps, a more realistic impression of the Cultural Revolution that I gained from Jan Wong’s Red China Blues.
26. Th book by bill bissett (Poetry, Aug 23)
Readng prolifik poet bill bissett iz not as satisfyng as hearng bill bissett, but stil an advenshur.
27. The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead (Fiction, Aug 28)
If you’re like me, when you were a kid and heard the metaphor “the underground railroad” you imagined a train that actually had underground tracks through tunnels (which seemed pretty cool, mainly because we didn’t actually know what the underground railroad was for). In this novel, the railroad really is underground, and a slave in Georgia named Cora uses it to escape and is chased north by a vicious “slave catcher” named Ridgeway. A worthy contribution to literature about slavery in the United States.
28. 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad (Fiction, Sep 3)
It’s likely not easy to to write a whole book about the experience of being fat in the world and have it be compelling, but Awad pulls it off. Is it a novel with thirteen chapters or thirteen linked stories? Both. Good writing.
29. The Debs of Bletchley Park and Other Stories by Michael Smith (Non-fiction, Oct 1)
Eight thousand women worked at Bletchley Park, the site at which British codebreakers deciphered Axis messages during World War II, particularly the Enigma codes, using hardware designed by Alan Turing and others. This book was an account of many of those women.
30. Milosz’s ABC’s by Czeslaw Milosz (trans. Madeline G. Levine) (Memoir, Nov 4)
Miloscz’s memoir in the form of alphabetically-organised mini-essays. Polish and, later, also American, many of his entries are about Polish political and intellectual figures, friends and enemies.
31. A Coney Island of the Mind by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Poetry, Nov 16)
I first heard of Ferlinghetti as the publisher of Ginsburg’s Howl, secondly as a founder of City Lights Bookstore. Only this year have I finally read his poetry.
32. Writing in an Age of Silence by Sara Paretsky (Non-fiction, Dec 10)
I haven’t read any of Paretsky’s detective novels, which feature female detective V.I. Warshawski, but this book of essays, published in 2007 during the Bush post-9/11 assaults on civil liberties, continues to be a relevant voice about a writer’s responsibility in the current political climate.
33. Monoceros by Suzette Mayr (Fiction, Dec 15)
This novel is about the aftermath of a bullied boy’s suicide and the effect his death has on those he left behind. Mayr, who lives and teaches in Calgary, is a great writer and deserves much more attention from Canada’s mainstream lit community.
34. what the auntys say by Sharron Proulx-Turner (Poetry, Dec 30)
Proulx-Turner was a two-spirit Métis poet living in Calgary who passed away on November 21 this year. I didn’t know her well, but enjoyed several evenings with her at meals in the company of her community, who had great respect for her. what the auntys say was, I believe, her first book, of three, a creation long-poem full of critical wit.