The Sunday Magazine

The best of Michael Enright's 2016 bookshelf

From a biography of Robert F. Kennedy, to historical fiction by Julian Barnes about Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich, to Frederik Sjoberg's meditation on the life and death of a hoverfly. "The choices are capricious, arbitrary, subjective and perhaps not at all to your liking. But here goes anyway."
Michael Enright shares some of the best books he's read in the last 12 months in this week's essay. (Shutterstock)

A modest offering of some books I've read in the past year that may not turn up on a best books list at year's end but were a sheer delight.

Now, the choices are capricious, arbitrary, subjective and perhaps not at all to your liking. But here goes anyway. 

Somewhere driving around Toronto is a late model expensive car with the license plate RFK 68 — the car owner obviously an admirer, as am I, of Senator Robert Kennedy, gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in June 1968.

(Random House)

Bobby Kennedy, by Larry Tye

A new biography of Kennedy is one of the best books I've read in the last 12 months. It's called Bobby Kennedy and it is written by Larry Tye.

RFK was a chameleon. He could be, and often was, devastatingly cruel. He was arrogant and ruthless in carrying out the agenda of his brother.

The murder of JFK changed Kennedy utterly. He became committed to the young, to the dispossessed, to the poor. The man who wanted to be a priest as a boy was now carrying out the social mission of his church.

And given the current state of affairs in the United States, you have to wonder how different things would have been if Bobby had stayed out of that hotel 48 years ago.

(Random House Canada)

The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

The central question of his latest novel is this: was the greatest Russian composer of the 20th Century, Dmitri Shostakovich, a Stalinist stooge — or was he a tormented genius who tried to walk a fine line between aesthetic honesty and personal safety?

Few writers can get inside a character's head as deftly as Barnes. He presents Shostakovich as a man with a ganglia of complexities which keep shifting.

The recurring image of the composer sitting in the landing outside of his apartment in the middle of the night, smoking cigarettes and waiting for the secret police to come, is indeed chilling.

(Particular Books)

The Fly Trapby Frederik Sjoberg

I've never understood the expression, you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. Who wants to catch flies, anyway?

Frederik Sjoberg is one of the world's leading experts on the hoverfly. He lives on a tiny island off the coast of Sweden where he collects his hoverflies and writes about them.

But he writes about much more than hoverflies. His essays are really about what it means to be alive and human in this time. They are universal. He ponders the great existential questions and in the next breath narrows his focus to tiny living organisms and human foibles.

He is a wonderful writer. Each sentence is crafted with great delicacy, attention to detail and good humour. He is also a very funny writer.

I could not care less about hoverflies, or any flies for that matter, but I care about this man and his ideas.

(Harper Collins Canada)

Colum McCann's novels

Finally for some exquisite binge reading over the holidays, the novels of Colum McCann. Born in Dublin, living in New York, McCann owes allegiance to all the great Irish wordsmiths before him, such as Joyce, O'Brien, O'Connor...Anne Enright, his contemporary. 

His novel Let the Great World Spin is an allegory on 9/11 and keeps as its dominant and improbable focus, the Frenchman Phillipe Petit who walked between the towers in 1974.

His other novel Transatlantic, which I read, somehow manages to entwine fictional stories of former slave Frederick Douglass, Good Friday peace negotiator Senator George Mitchell and the Atlantic fliers Jack Alcock and Roy Brown.

The result is pure alchemy, magic by a master technician. Colum McCann never disappoints, and you won't be able to stop reading him.

Click the button above to hear Michael's essay. His book list is below:

  • Bobby Kennedy, by Larry Tye
  • The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes
  • The Fly Trap, by Frederik Sjoberg
  • Let the Great World Spin and Transatlantic, by Colum McCann


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