My Favourite Reads of 2013

 

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words await another voice. And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

~ T.S. Eliot, (from: Little Gidding)

While I am definitely thinking about all of the great reading ahead in 2014, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2013. Lists are always subjective…I recognize this, but I read some truly wonderful books last year and I wanted to record these stand-outs. Maybe this list will help you discover some new reads, or prompt some interesting conversations; I hope it will do both!

I have broken out my list into four categories (but the books are not listed in any particular order):

  • Literary Fiction Published in 2013;
  • Contemporary Literature.;
  • Classic Literature; and
  • Nonfiction.

I. Literary Fiction Published in 2013:

1. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, by Therese Anne Fowler. This is a wonderful novel of historical fiction. It is well-researched and Fowler has beautifully imagined (and, maybe, at moments recreated certain aspects of) the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, beyond just the wife of the famous/infamous F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fowler show Zelda forging her own identity while fighting her own personal demons and Scott’s, too? With brilliant insight and imagination, Therese Anne Fowler brings us Zelda’s irresistible story as she herself might have told it.

2. Kicking the Sky, by Anthony De Sa. I read this book in October, 2013, and shared my thoughts at that time. Three months later, I still find myself thinking about this story and wowed by De Sa’s talent.

3. The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner. This was my first time reading Kushner, and she blew my mind. I loved everything about this novel – it was tough, edgy and sensitive.

4. The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan.  This novel ticked all the boxes for me: ballet, belle époque Paris, Degas, Zola, La Figaro.  While fictional, I loved the way Buchanan wove the history of the real events throughout this story. I read the book quickly – two very late-night reading sessions that kept me up way, waaaay past bedtime. The subsequent daytime sleepiness was well worth it though.

5. The Crooked Maid, by Dan Vyleta. The Crooked Maid is many things – historical fiction, mystery, literary fiction, homage. Vyleta’s doing a lot with this novel, which could be a worry – but it’s very good, and Vyleta can really write. His ability with description is pretty stellar.

6. The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. The only word that keeps rolling around in my brain, concerning Gilbert’s new novel, is: LUSH – this book is so lush and enveloping. It was pretty delightful from start to finish. And if you know me, you know I don’t really use the word ‘delightful’! This novel may have been my most surprising read this year.

II. Contemporary Literature:

1. Indian Horse (2012), by Richard Wagamese. I managed a 5 word review, after I read this novel in February, 2013: “Stunning. Beautiful. Heartbreaking. Required reading.” Wagamese’s book affected me very deeply. For all its heartbreak, it was also very much a hopeful story. This is a book that can, and should, be read by everyone.

2. The Wreckage (2005), by Michael Crummey. My love for Michael Crummey’s writing runs fairly deep – I think he is brilliant. He wowed me again with The Wreckage. Reading this novel made me want to spend some time in Crummey’s brain…or, at the very least, take a writing class with him.

3. Sweetness in the Belly (2005), by Camilla Gibb. I read this book for the third time in 2013, and man, it’s great!  Gibb is a fantastic storyteller and through her prose I could truly see, hear, smell and touch the places she created in this book – Lilly’s life in Harare, and her life in London were both so vivid.

4. A Complicated Kindness,(2004) by Miriam Toews.  Another third reading. (2013 was unusual in that regard, I don’t generally re-read much at all.) I LOVE THIS NOVEL SO HARD!  I think this books gets better with each reading. The way Toews captures the voice of 16-year-old Nomi is incredible. Sure she’s wise and precocious, but she’s also still a kid and Toews gets her voice so right.

5. The Round House, (2012) by Louise Erdrich. What a great novel! It’s evocative and hard but using a 13-year-old boy as the protagonist adds a layer of nuance that would be missing in an older main character (I think – given the arc of Joe’s story.) I really loved Erdrich’s perspective on family, love and justice. The supporting characters are all very interesting and well developed, and served to make this a very tightly woven novel.

6. Arcadia (2011), by Lauren Groff. I loved Arcadia a lot. i viscerally responded to the settings and people Groff created here, and i am kinda floored by Groff’s talent. I was totally caught up in Bit’s life. I loved the timeline and following him along life’s path.

7. The Snow Child (2012), by Eowyn Ivey. What a fantastic debut novel! It’s a magical and sometimes heartbreaking story, perfectly set for a wonderful winter read.

8. The Savage Detectives (1998), by Roberto Bolaño.

bolañover

bow-lah-nyoh-verr;  noun

1. weird physical and emotional effects caused by reading the works of Roberto Bolaño. symptoms may include: confusion; anger; awe; dry eyes; headache; idolatry; exhaustion; the strong desire for alcohol, drugs or both; feelings of filthiness and the need to shower to remove the grit; wonder; sadness; curiosity; the unexplained urge to pimp out a 1970s impala. symptoms may ease with time or they may worsen.

2. a thing that has survived from the past.

III. Classic Literature:

1. Two Solitudes (1945), by Hugh MacLennan. What a dense, wonderful important novel. This was a re-read for me, but I had lost so many details over the years it was like a new experience. Following the strands of story arcs concerning ‘two solitudes’, through this novel was amazing. MacLennan wrote about so many important issues and brought heart and humanity to the telling. Certainly a canadian classic, and a book that should continue to resonate for generations to come.

2. Persuasion (1818), by Jane Austen. Late in the book there is this quote:

“Minutiae which, even with every advantage of taste and delicacy which good Mrs. Musgrove could not give, could be properly interesting only to the principals.”

And when I read that line it made me think of the details in Austen’s writing and how, in fact, the minutiae present with her manner of storytelling sucks me right in every time. But…with Persuasion I feel this is very much a novel of Anne’s restraint and resolve, as much as it is a tale of different persuasions. So given Anne’s nature, though we aren’t privy to her inner workings in great detail, I was seeing everything through her eyes and completely immersed in her world.

3. The Grapes of Wrath (1939), by John Steinbeck. Oh for the love of humanity — is there any family as hard done by as the Joads??? The Joads’ humanity and hope, in the face of utter hopelessness, is incredible. And the way Steinbeck conveyed this balance throughout the novel is brilliant. The man was a genius. But i don’t really know what I could possibly say here that hasn’t been said earlier, and better, by others? Read it! Do it!

4. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), by Harper Lee. I made it all the way to page 317 without crying…even though I felt like I could a couple of times earlier on. But page 317 did me in, the bastard! Heh. (I am not really a person who cries while reading – though Grapes of Wrath last week (see above) and this book tonight are turning me into a liarface on this front.) Now, I am all teary and soppy, and I ugly-cried and I got the hiccups and I have to try and write something here that conveys how brilliant this book is to me. So how about this: Harper Lee is so freaking amazing she will make you ugly-cry!  Yeah? Cool!

5. Twelfth Night (1602), by William Shakespeare. A re-read (again with the re-reads!!) after many years, and still as great as I remember it to be. Shakespeare can be lots of fun.

IV. Nonfiction:

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012), by Susan Cain. I am an introvert. But I am not shy. So I have been trying to explain the difference to people for years. Instead, I should just carry around copies of Cain’s great, great book. Being an introvert and having a good and thoughtful understanding of what this means, I still learned a lot from Quiet. Cain’s research seems very well done (and so interesting), and her style is very engaging. I think this is one of those books that everyone should read as it will likely help open some eyes and minds, and allow people to better understand and respect one another.

2. The Truth About Luck (2013), by Iain Reid. Sometimes you read a book and it becomes something you connect with so personally and deeply that it becomes nearly impossible to detach from it to assess or review it constructively. That happened with this amazing book by Iain Reid. But, I  thought about it for quite a while, and i think – my personal attachment aside – the strength of Reid’s writing, the flow of the story, and his ability to make us care about what he and his grandma are up to make this book totally worth its 5-star rating. (I wrote about the book in more detail, in March, 2013.)

3. Belonging: Home Away From Home (2003), by Isabel Huggan. This book is wonderful – and was my #1 favourite read for 2013! The majority of the book is a memoir of place – the search for home. Not just the physical: the location and the structure, but also the feeling. Feeling one is home is a big deal. At least it is to me, anyway. And it’s something I have been hoping to find my whole life.  Huggan gives voice to this search, this sensation, and does it so beautifully and naturally. There’s a lot of excavation of memory that goes on in the telling, and it felt very much like I was just listening to Huggan in conversation. Also contained in the story are small snippets of Huggan’s writing life, something I really appreciated.

4. The Arctic Grail (1988), by Pierre Berton. What a great book!!! Pierre Berton is an excellent storyteller and, it would seem, he is also an impeccable researcher. But that’s not really a surprise!! Shamefully, this is the first time I have read a Berton book. OOPS!! He definitely came up during my time in elementary and secondary school, but we were never actually given any of his books to read/study. Weird, right?? I was so amazed by the overwhelming lack of preparedness with which the majority of the expeditions undertook their quests. The British expeditions were stubbornly and fatally wrong-headed in not learning from their inuit contacts, and judging the Inuit, while useful to them, ‘savages’ and ‘unintelligent’.

5. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (1997), by David Foster Wallace.  Each essay in this collection has its own strength (and each is fairly brilliant), but overwhelmingly evident, when taken as a whole, is DFW’s ability to assess and read people, and analyze a situation or instance in the context of a bigger picture. It’s uncanny, really.

6. My Ideal Bookshelf (2013), by Jane Mount & Thessaly La Force. Or, as I like to call it, porn for book lovers! This is just a beautiful book to look at, and it also gives great satisfaction on the ‘snooping the bookshelves’ front.

7. Bottomfeeder (2007), by Taras Grescoe.  LOVE THIS BOOK!! Seriously; it’s fantastic. It should be required reading for everyone. Grescoe has a wonderful ability with delivering the facts and science in a very engaging and approachable way. The structure of the book is fantastic: each chapter is like a little case study. A species is examined – the supply, the demand, the problems and the science – and explained. Grescoe travelled the world while researching this book and is clearly very passionate about the seafood industry, and about the choices he makes for his diet.

***************

So, there you have it – all of the absolute stand out books I had the pleasure of reading in 2013.  Altogether, I read 121 books last year. This was definitely not usual. Generally, I average somewhere between 60 and 70 books per year. I am not really clear on what happened in 2013 to cause my pace to double, but it was quite the adventure and I will look back fondly on ‘that one crazy reading year’.

A few stats:

  • Total books read: 121
  • Total pages read: 41,839
  • 71 female writers
  • 49 male writers
  • And 1 collection featuring male and female writers
  • 12 works in translation

You can view my full reading list on Goodreads.

Thank you for visiting Literal Life, and continuing to be interested in the books I am reading and talking about.

As always – please feel free to share your favourite reads with me – I would love to hear about them

Happy reading!

Book Lover’s Ball 2011 – Part Two

I had a great feed-back to part one of my Book Lover’s Ball post; thanks to everyone for reading about the wonderful evening. I received quite a few questions by email, so in part two of my coverage, I will try to answer all of your questions, while sharing some more pictures and details of the evening.

Question #1:

What was served during the cocktail reception?

Answer:

Celebrity Chef, Marc Thuet orchestrated the luscious cocktail reception. Guests were treated to several different hors d’oeurves, including: savoury crepe with smoked salmon and creme fraiche, steak tartare on a potato gaufrette and an amuse-bouche risotto with wild mushroom and aged parmesan . Everything was delicious and looked gorgeous too.

Question #2:

What did you have for dinner?

Answer:

Dinner was created by the Royal York Hotel‘s executive chef David Garcelon. Our menu for the evening began with a twice-baked goat cheese souffle with wild and cultivated greens, cilantro chutney in an herb buttermilk dressing. Next, we were treated to some amazingly tender, melt-in-your-mouth roasted Alberta beef loin with maple sweet potato Charlotte and tart huckleberry jus. This was served along side olive oil glazed, roasted winter vegetables that were really lovely. For dessert, our sweet spots were tamed by espresso chocolate truffle almond dacquoise pine nut crunch with amaretto anglaise and tiramisu espresso crepe zabaglione mascarpone cream with espresso soaked lady fingers and dark sweet cherry compote. Garcelon managed to create a meal that was wonderful while eschewing typical banquet fare. It is also impressive to note that Garcelon, as Executive Chef at the prestigious Royal York Hotel, juggles 6 restaurants, massive banquets and room service. Complete with a walkie talkie, he oversees 12 sous chefs and in the course of a typical day, he walks 8 kms. Garcelon manages a budget of $30-million, and a staff of 200. He earned his first gig as an executive chef at the age of 28. At the Royal York, he’s also become an advocate for local produce – even keeping an herb garden and 10,000 bees on the roof so that the hotel can take advantage of fresh herbs. At 42, David Garcelon is a decade younger than most chefs in such a high-profile position.

Question #3:

How does a fashion show tie in with a book event?

Answer:

This is a question I was asked, not only by readers of Literal Life, but also by people I was talking with, in person, following The Book Lover’s Ball. The fashion show was a great way for guests to be entertained after dinner. Staged in six scenes, one book was paired with one or two fashion designers. The creations presented brought the designer’s feel for the story they were representing to life in a way that was appreciated by the audience. The books that were used for inspiration were: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert; Mystify by Artist Arthur; Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates; Secret Daughter by Shilpi Somaya Gowda; 007 Carte Blanche : The New James Bond Novel by Jeffrey Deaver; and The Ice Princess by Camilla Läckberg. The fashions ranged from fun and playful to elegant and ethereal. In particular, the designs of Romona Kaveza, paired with Läckberg’s winter-y novel were stunning. Introducing the fashion show was Lisa Tant, editor-in-chief of Flare magazine. Designers showcasing their fashions included: Nadya Toto, Shan, 2 Second, Samuel Dong, Yves Jean Lacasse, and Hugo Boss.

Question #4:

Where are the pictures of you, Jennifer??

Answer:

Fair enough! Since I attended the event on a media pass, I was flying solo for the night. I didn’t want to appear like a total goofball by doing the classic “don’t mind me, I’m taking a picture of myself” manoeuver. You know the one: you shoot your hand way, way out, holding your camera, and stretching your arm as long as it will go then hope you are in the viewfinder and snap off a photo of yourself. Somehow, trying that while one is unaccompanied seems mucho el-lame-o. I was snapped, with two lovely ladies by another media photographer but as of yet I have not been able to track that picture down. I did do something oddly fun, in an attempt to capture one photo of me dressed up all girly-like. Hello Magazine had a “cover shoot” opportunity set-up for guests. I stood, gamely, for their photographer in front of a green screen. He was great about helping me pose and took a couple of different shots. Then, his assistant would do her computer magic and…voila! I was on the cover of the magazine. “Voila!” took about 15 minutes to process and be ready for pick-up and, in that time, I became distracted by all of the beautiful people, the happy bartenders and, oh yeah!!, talking with some of the best writers in Canada. By the time dinner began, the memory of my cover shoot was distant and, unfortunately, forgotten at the end of the night. So, note to self: next time, don’t be a doofus! Ask someone to take a picture of you with your own camera, would you??

Question #5:

Who else did you meet?

Answer:

Who else did I meet?? Well, I thought I had done very well showing you some of the great authors I had a chance to chat with but, apparently, you want more!! Heck, I don’t blame you, really. I was so thrilled with how open and gracious the writers I had a chance to speak with were with their time. I tried to be respectful and not take up too much of any one author’s time but, truth be told, there were several writers I was lucky enough to meet with whom I could have chatted for hours. Okay, so along with the terrific novelists I told you about in my previous blog posting, here are some great photos of additional authors (a singer and a CBC radio host too) I also had the chance to meet (even if just ever so briefly): Greg Levey, Gill Deacon, Cathy Marie Buchanan, Terry Fallis (standing with the CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi), Kate Taylor, Tish Cohen, James Bartleman, Betsy Powell and Matt Dusk (again with Jian Ghomeshi). Here they are:

Question #6:

Was there anyone you didn’t get to meet that you wish you could have?

Answer:

Absolutely!! I would have loved to have had the opportunity to meet Zoe Whittall and Micah Toub. I recently read Toub’s memoir Growing Up Jung and thought it would be cool to meet the man behind the interesting upbringing. Whittall has been a Toronto writer I have long admired. As well as being a gifted novelist and poet, Whittall has been a strong voice for furthering and promoting gay rights. That her day-job is with Quill & Quire magazine, makes me ever so slightly envious, I will admit.

So, clearly, the idea I am left with is this: I must ensure to be on the media list for next year so I can pester even more writers with my, with hope, less than inane questions.

Question #7:

How much did it cost for you to attend?

Answer:

Well, I was very fortunate to receive an invitation (as a member of the media) from Kirsti Stephenson, the Director of Special Events & PR, at The Mint Agency. Kirsti and her team were responsible for creating the PR strategy and promoting this event for the Toronto Public Library Foundation. If I factor in the haircut, manicure, pedicure and other necessities to get ready for The Ball, it came to a grand total of…none of your business!! 😀 It was for a good cause: the libraries of Toronto!

I can tell you that tickets to the 2011 event were $600 each. Yes, this is very pricey but if you are a book lover I would really urge you to start saving some money, today, for the 2012 Ball. It is such a tremendous opportunity to mingle with so many talented authors in such a posh setting. It really is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be gorgeous for an evening while hanging with some of Canada’s finest literati! I will remind you again that money from the event goes to help Toronto’s public library system.

Question #8:

What the heck is the Toronto Public Library Foundation??

Answer:

From the library website: Toronto Public Library Foundation believes in the social benefits of a strong and healthy public library system. As a registered charity, we foster relationships with people of vision to enhance the impact Toronto’s Library can have on individual lives, above and beyond the core services that municipal funding provides.

Through its fundraising efforts, the Foundation provides enhanced support to the Library in three broad areas:

* Improved and expanded collections
* Enhanced programs and services
* Revitalized community spaces

[Toronto Public Library] believes that the character and quality of a city depends on the resources available to its people. We believe that a great library is a fundamental requirement for any city to achieve its full social and economic potential. Toronto’s Libraries are vital to the city, and vital to support.

For more information on the Toronto Public Library Foundation, you can visit their web site.

Question #9:

How many books do you read in a year, anyway?

Answer:

A lot! Oh, wait, is that not specific enough?? Okay, in 2010 I read 92 books. Some were for work, some were to share on this blog and some were just because I am a total bibliophile and can get a little twitchy if my TBR (to be read) pile gets too low. I will also admit a slight addiction to the web site, Bookshelf Porn. Check it out; you know you wanna!

So, this completes my coverage of The Book Lover’s Ball, 2011 edition. I hope you have enjoyed reading about this event. I have really loved sharing my experience with you!

Look for an upcoming post about Midnight at the Dragon Cafe by Judy Fong Bates.