Friday, December 16, 2016 |
Writers are often the best readers. We asked some great Canadian writers - like Eden Robinson and Heather O'Neill - to weigh in on their favourite CanLit of the year, from fiction to nonfiction, poetry to picture books.
1. Eden Robinson picks: The Break by Katherena Vermette
Award-winning writer Eden Robinson is the author of the CanLit classic Monkey Beach and has a new book, Son of Trickster, coming in February 2017. She says The Break, Métis poet Katherena Vermette's debut novel, is her favourite book of the year.
Katherena Vermette masterfully weaves her multiple narrators to tell the story of a community in crisis without preaching or platitudes. She's crafted characters that are frustratingly human yet drawn them with such empathy, it's heartbreaking. The story goes dark, but remains hopeful. She winds through time, through a ghost, through history, but the tension in her novel ratchets up relentlessly as she circles the central trauma, ingeniously throwing bread crumbs of details, pulling the reader onward till the end. With such a complex structure, she wisely keeps her language spare and taut. This is a novel I'll read and take apart for years.
2. Mona Awad picks: The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
Mona Awad had a breakout year with her debut novel-in-stories, 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl. After nabbing the Amazon.ca First Novel Award, the book was shortlisted for the 2016 Scotiabank Giller Prize. Awad says her favourite book of the year was The Wonder by fellow Giller finalist Emma Donoghue.
Emma Donoghue's latest novel is aptly named. I was gripped by the mystery of Anna O'Donnell, an 11-year-old fasting girl in 19th century Ireland. I was equally captivated by the plight of Lib Wright, a former Nightingale nurse who has been charged to observe Anna - is she a miracle or a hoax? Donoghue skillfully navigates and amplifies tensions between class, science and faith to create an irresistibly compelling and haunting novel. Her sharp, clear prose not only brings this world to life, but makes you feel, like any great story, bound to these remarkable characters and their fates. A terrifying and wondrous place to be.
3. Heather O'Neill picks: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
Heather O'Neill, who spent two consecutive years on the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist, has a new book coming in 2017: the eagerly anticipated The Lonely Hearts Hotel. She says her favourite Canadian book of the year was The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall.
I really loved Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People. The novel is hard to put down because it's so relatable. It's filled with conversations you want to storm into the pages and be a part of. A man is arrested for sexual misconduct and we witness his family coping with the consequences of his actions in painful detail. It documents how difficult it is for families to recover from this type of trauma and honestly accept their new life stories. The novel captures how we are all survivors of the effects of rape culture. No life or community goes untouched by this type of violence. Young girls are foot soldiers in a battle to reclaim empowerment. Whittall has great compassion and understanding for those who retreat. However, she makes it clear that in a society all our reactions are important, and that for women independence is a form of resistance.
4. George Elliott Clarke picks: The Witch of the Inner Wood: Collected Long Poems by M. Travis Lane
Parliamentary poet laureate George Elliott Clarke had a busy 2016, publishing a novel, The Motorcyclist, and an epic poem entitled Canticles I (MMXVI). His favourite book of the year was The Witch of the Inner Wood: Collected Long Poems by M. Travis Lane.
M. Travis Lane keeps the Aristotelian tradition in poetry: To move from lyric poetry to longer verse-forms. Thus, she has always done - with meet cadence, with right diction, with sweet wisdom. But the Collected Long Poems gather at long last her consistent achievement, her persistent excellence, her insistent, epic impulse. Lane accepts our collective debt to classical poets, the undead - deathless - bards of antiquity. Thus, she reanimates Homer, redeploys Odysseus and Penelope, in "Homecoming," verses now 40 years old, yet as vivid as today: "A suitor brings his appetite / ... who should come, tanned and sauntering, / under a buck, or a bag of fish.... // I'd have [suitors'] leg plates for my ploughs / but one needs men to fight men. What for else? / For children, and for loneliness. A stranger kin." The wording is precise, the imagery compelling, the verses supple. If you have not read Lane before, prepare to travel: Like T.S. Eliot, she wants you to have a a transporting experience in your imagination. If you have read Lane before, prepare for fresh astonishment. She is Homeric breadth and Sapphic brevity: In this suite of superb poems.
5. Zoe Whittall picks: You Only Live Twice by Chase Joynt & Mike Hoolboom
Zoe Whittall's novel The Best Kind of People is one of the most buzzed-about books of the year, and it landed her a spot on the Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist. Her favourite Canadian book of the year is You Only Live Twice by Chase Joynt and Mike Hoolboom.
I love hybrid text - this book is part memoir, part essay, part cultural theory - and I also love to read correspondence. There's a weird and lovely voyeuristic thrill when you're reading letters, like you're being let in on secret stories. This book engages with so many interesting ideas around second lives and the possibilities that occur after major transitions - Joynt's transition from female to male and Hoolboom's life after a near-death experience from AIDS. It's a lively, absorbing, original and timely book.
Mariko Tamaki has had an ultra-productive year. Along with publishing a new YA novel, Saving Montgomery Sole, she's signed on to work on Supergirl: Being Super for DC Comics and a new HULK series with Marvel. She selects two Canadian picture books as her favourites of the year.
On Kate Beaton's King Baby: King Baby may or may not be the perfect children's companion book for fans already enjoying Netflix's new series The Crown. Regardless, it's another (really) funny book from one of Canada's reigning humorists and I think you should all buy it. Beaton brings her insight and wit to a story about the glorious powers of newborns and the line of succession. Good for big and little brothers and sisters and brother and sisters to be. Kate Beaton is not royalty, but she is a national treasure.
On Jon Klassen's We Found a Hat: The other day I was sitting in a bookstore listening to a woman read Jon Klassen's I Want My Hat Back to a little girl in that sing-song voice parents use when they're reading stories about good little boys and girls to (presumably) other good little boys and girls. I stayed and eavesdropped because I wanted to hear that moment where the reader realized that Klassen's books are not those kinds of books. Klassen's books are modern poetry about love, loss and, in some cases, hats. They're less about morals and more about emotions. And what's wrong with that? Nothing. We Found a Hat, when I finally read it, after much anticipation, is the perfect conclusion (if that's what it is) to Klassen's hat trilogy. It's about desire and hope and friendship, evoking the power of the desert in this tale of two turtles, one hat and a dream.
7. Yasuko Thanh picks: The Parcel by Anosh Irani
Yasuko Thanh's debut novel, Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains, won the 2016 Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize. She picks The Parcel by Anosh Irani, a finalist for the prize, as her favourite read of the year.
I had the pleasure of hearing Anosh Irani read at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto. The Parcel is about Madhu, a retired hijra sex worker in Bombay. The tragedy of her life is felt in every line. But the power of this work goes beyond its subject matter. Irani's writing is honest; the emotional cadence of the book's language will sweep you along, guiding you past its most brutal scenes. Irani has said he "writes from the body" and I believe him because the voice of this story touched me in ways only a punch in the gut can deliver. The impetus and urgency of Madhu's tale, this tragedy, hits with the force of a groundswell. I dare anyone to read this book and remain unmoved.
8. Catherine Leroux picks: The Island of Books by Dominique Fortier, translated by Rhonda Mullins
Catherine Leroux's novel-in-stories The Party Wall was a finalist for the Scotiabank Giller Prize this year, and picked up a Governor General's Literary Award win for translator Lazer Lederhendler. Her favourite book of the year is The Island of Books by Dominique Fortier, translated by Rhonda Mullins.
It only seems fitting that my copy of Dominique Fortier's The Island of Books is all crinkled from having been doused with bath water - one of its most striking images for me is that of a thousand hand-copied pages drifting in the ocean while a young child tries to rescue them. Part of the novel takes place in the Middle Ages, where a bereaved painter retreats to the monastery of Mont-Saint-Michel and, though illiterate, becomes a copyist of forbidden works. He is surrounded by monks who treat their library like a garden and their garden like a library. While they strive to preserve their tomes, a gang of mysterious child-pilgrims floods the monastery. The other, more autobiographical part of the book introduces a Montrealer captivated by Mont-Saint-Michel, who learns to reconcile her work as a writer and her new role as a mother. Between those two universes, countless connections form almost magically, or mystically - many through fascinating remarks about etymology. Dominique Fortier's writing is powerful and delicate, precise and evocative, and allows this two-headed tale to dive into the depths of love, creation, motherhood and the sea. But above all, it is a book about books, a tribute to the human desire to leave traces, to express the ineffable and to imagine the unseen. Something every book lover should read.
9. Susan Juby picks: Flannery by Lisa Moore
Susan Juby won the prestigious Leacock Medal for humour writing this year for her book Republic of Dirt, and later took home the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award for The Truth Commission. She says her favourite book of the year was Flannery by Lisa Moore.
Flannery is Lisa Moore's first novel for young adults and I fervently hope it's not her last. The book is set in Newfoundland and it's funny, stealthily brilliant and perfectly pitched. It has all the things one expects from a teen novel: a narrator with an unforgettable voice, a troubled best friend, a problematic love interest and troubles with parents. Somehow Moore has made all those things seem new. Maybe that's because she understands that for her characters and many of her readers, these things are new and hard and sometimes ineffably beautiful.
10. Drew Hayden Taylor picks: The Ballad of Danny Wolfe by Joe Friesen
Ojibway writer Drew Hayden Taylor has made a career of showcasing Indigenous perspectives through novels, plays and books. His new book, Take Us to Your Chief, is a collection of sci-fi stories married with Indigenous history and myth. He says his favourite read of 2016 is The Ballad of Danny Wolfe by Joe Friesen.
This may seem like an odd recommendation for a must-read book but I would like to suggest Joe Friesen's The Ballad of Danny Wolfe. As both a person of Aboriginal ancestry and former journalist, I found myself crawling into this compelling biography of both the Prairie's infamous Native gang, the Indian Posse and its founder, Danny Wolfe. Accessible and fascinating, it sheds a light on a lot of the difficult issues facing today's urban Native population and why many of its members end up taking a more difficult path. It should make you angry on many different levels.
11. Gary Barwin picks: Small Waterways by Nelson Ball
Poet Gary Barwin made his fiction debut in 2016 with Yiddish for Pirates, which landed him on two of Canada's most prestigious shortlists: the Scotiabank Giller Prize and Governor General's Literary Award for fiction. His favourite book of the year was Small Waterways by Nelson Ball.
There's a fire on and my feet are up. A mug of coffee steams. I'm reading a tiny perfect book: Small Waterways by Canadian poetry's master of minimalism, Nelson Ball. It's fitting that Camerson Anstee's Apt 9 Press micropress only printed 100 of these. I've got #58 (they're signed and numbered.) The book recently won the 2016 bpNichol Chapbook Award, but the edition was sold out long before then. Luckily, all of the poems are included in Chewing Water (Mansfield Press), his most recent "big" collection. Nelson Ball's poems are instants recorded from a closely and sensitively observed world. These little poems feel like you've held your breath - an inhalation, an inspiration - for an instant to observe something in nature, to remember grief, a tiny recollected moment with your partner, a quirky detail of language or of an illness. There's a humane consolation, a gentleness, a wry twinkle in the wisdom and sheer grace of Ball's world. I don't need an escape or to travel far way to seek refuge from the now. I can gaze through these tiny pinholes at these little poems' very human light.
12. C.C. Humphreys picks: News from the Red Desert by Kevin Patterson
C.C. Humphreys is award-winning writer of historical mysteries and adventures, whose latest titles include Fire and The Hunt of the Dragon. He selects News from the Red Desert by Kevin Patterson as his favourite read of the year.
This is an exemplary war novel, taking a multi-narrator view of the conflict in Afghanistan from a writer who was there (he served a tour as a doctor). Set largely on the airfield in Kandahar, Kevin Patterson switches effortlessly between distinct voices, amongst them journalists, generals, a Thai masseuse and the staff of an extraordinary coffee shop, Green Beans, where Muslim baristas observe and comment on the latest, strange invaders. At the dark but often wryly humoured heart of the novel is the veteran Master Sergeant Anakopoulus - a great addition to that line of literary soldiers who have seen too much reality and find varied ways of dealing with it. Clear, elegant prose captures country and characters, while snappy dialogue scenes build convincing portraits of their public and private faces. One to sink deeply into as the nights shorten.
13. Elisabeth de Mariaffi picks: The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
Photo by: Ayelet Tsabari
Elisabeth de Mariaffi's latest, a literary thriller called The Devil You Know, is among the 17 Canadian books nominated for the prestigious International DUBLIN Literary Award. She selects The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall as her favourite Canadian novel of the year.
I'd say the Canadian book that felt most important to me this year has to be Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People. Off to a gunshot start with the surprise arrest of respected teacher and father George Woodbury - for sexual misconduct involving students at the private collegiate where he teaches - the novel explores the impact of the accusations and the arrest on the community and especially on Woodbury's immediate family: his wife, his adult son and a teenage daughter who attends the same private school herself. The story is compelling, but I think what made it stand out to me is the complexity that Whittall allows in - the manipulation of victims by a local group, the complicated feelings and real reactions of daughter Sadie, and Woodbury's own history as a community leader best known for the time he prevented a school shooting. The book asks readers to examine an uncomfortable question: What happens to our best intentions when the accused is not a stranger, but someone we know and trust?
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