2014 – A Year in Reading

Illustration by Charlotte Runcie

“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 2015, I very much wanted to share with you my favourite reads from 2014.

 

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!

The 5-Star Reads:

Fiction:

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews. I read this book back in March. It’s still sitting with me, burrowed into my being, taking up space in my heart. How Toews gets into the grit of family – and does it so beautifully and with such humour – is continually and amazingly impressive to me. This is my top fiction read for 2014.

The Wars, by Timothy Findley.  A work of classic (contemporary) Canadian fiction. Blew. My. Mind. This is a 200-page epic – how did Findley do that? The discussions in an online book group really added to the read for me too.

Sweetland, by Michael Crummey. I LOVE MICHAEL CRUMMEY! Crummey carries the better part of the second part of this novel with only one character. How?! Because he’s the master! That’s how.

Fifth Business, by Robertson Davies. Another contemporary classic Canadian book, this was an awesome reread. As with The Wars, mentioned above, this novel is fantastic, and benefited from some really wonderful discussions with an online book group.

* The Transcriptionist, by Amy Rowland. I found this debut novel to be fantastic. Rowland has done a tremendous job giving us fully realized worlds – both the inner and outer lives of main character, Lena. I also felt this new novel to be different – a bit of a new story, that reminded me of nothing else I have ever read. It’s very well-written and well imagined.

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey. I just really like this novel. This was a reread for me – I loved it on first reading in 2013. At the beginning of 2014, I reread this novel because one of my book groups was reading it. The Snow Child held up wonderfully! This is a perfect winter read: it’s moody and lovely and a bit of a fairy tale for adults.

Winter Sport: Poems, by Priscila Uppal. I really enjoyed this collection. I mean… who knew you could create such compelling poems about winter events at the Olympics? Perhaps I really hadn’t actually thought about it – but I am so glad to have read this wonderful collection from Uppal.

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5-Star Nonfiction:

The Empathy Exams: Essays, by Leslie Jamison. I really loved the way Jamison wove some fairly different topics together through the theme of empathy. This book is my favourite nonfiction read of 2014.

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert. This is just a damn good book. Smart and interesting, it also allows the reader to be a bit of an armchair traveller as we go with Kolbert on her research missions.

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened, by Allie Brosh. I loved this book right into my heart. I loved it hard. Brosh is so open about her depression, but she’s also – particularly if you are a dog-owner – laugh-out-loud funny.

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4-Star Reads, Worth Honourable Mentions:

Fiction:

* Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent. Overall, I found this to be a very impressive debut novel from Australian Hannah Kent (who has been mentored by Geraldine Brooks). It makes a lot of sense, this pairing. Both tell great historically-based tales and perform, it seems, fairly monumental research. There’s also an effective simplicity to their prose. Kent really brought Iceland to life in this novel too, something I really enjoyed.

* The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. This is another wonderful debut novel, and another work of enjoyable historical fiction. At the time of reading this book, I was in dire need of an excellent, escapist read – The Miniaturist completely fit the bill. Burton’s research appears to be solid, and gaining a fictional perspective on Amsterdam in the late-1600s was a true reading pleasure.

* We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. This was such an interesting and different read. I loved the premise, and Fowler’s style. I have also realized that this should maybe be bumped up to a 5-star rating. The novel has sat with me for quite a while now, and I find myself thinking about it often.

* The Lobster Kings, by Alexi Zentner. This was an interesting and evocative read – at times I could feel and smell the cold, wet sea. This will be a great summer, or vacation, read for many people.

* Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Adichie’s writing is great – she’s evocative and engaging. Everything is quite vivid, and I could easily see, hear and feel the places she describes. If I had not read any of Adichie’s previous novels…this probably would have been a 5-star read for me. In Americanah, I found quite few similarities to her other books – similar characters, similar situations, similar challenges. So while the writing was great, I felt like she had recycled some stuff. If you have not read Adichie before, this is definitely the book I recommend I recommend as your starting point.

* Curiosity, by Joan Thomas. Thomas did a great job evoking the time and the setting, and conveying the challenges Mary Anning faced. There is a line in the story that really stood out to me: “Oh, she’s a history and a mystery, our Mary.” While i know only a little bit about Anning, I hope that Thomas’ fictional portrayal is embraced and enjoyed by many readers. Anning did not receive the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, given the divide between men and women, as well as the class divide, and Anning’s lack of formal education and training. So, this book is definitely a tribute to a remarkable woman, and I am so glad I finally took the opportunity to read it!

* The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett. Sometimes you read the exact right book at the exact right time. That happened for me with The Magician’s Assistant. Patchett handles the themes of love, loss, grief, family dynamics, how the past defines a person, and improbable relationships so wonderfully. There is a grace to her writing that pulls me in and, at moments, stops me in my tracks as I admire her prose. The ending was a bit of a disappointment, so I couldn’t (didn’t) give this a full 5-stars.

* can’t and won’t: (stories), by Lydia Davis. All I can say about this collection is it is quirktastically wonderful. I had a lot of fun reading this book, and was pleased to find another short story author I enjoy. (I was already a fan of Davis’ translation work. Her edition of Madame Bovary is excellent!!)

* Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley. Such a fascinating read – and probably not what you think it’s going to be if you are only basing your opinion on film or stage adaptations. I had some issues with certain points in the story feeling like padding. Shelley is also a bit clunky with her writing – but she was so young when she wrote this novel. It’s quite an accomplishment for a 19yo’s first book – a story that has endured and been loved for such a long time. This specific edition the one I recommend. I enjoyed Elizabeth Kostova‘s introduction a lot. (Which I read it after I finished the novel itself, and it did add to my enjoyment of the story.)

* Mãn, by Kim Thúy. The partnership of author Kim Thúy and translator Shiela Fischman is truly a thing of beauty! They are both so wonderfully talented! Thúy’s prose is so rich and nuanced, and it often feels lyrical when I am reading her books. (I felt the same way about Ru.) I enjoy how Thúy plays with memory in her writing, and how she is able to generate visceral responses.

* The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride. This novel really grabbed my attention – I found it so interesting and creative, and it got me very curious about the real events upon which it is based. As well, the style of the story is hugely entertaining. McBride is a funny guy, I think. And while this novel is dealing with a serious subject, I loved the moments of levity included. I think this is a novel that can be appreciated by many readers.

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4-Star Nonfiction:

* The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese, by Michael Paterniti. What a great read! I enjoyed this book so much and loved that, while the story really is about a very special cheese, it’s a book about many different things in life – things we all wonder about, and struggle with: belonging, family, friendship, our path in life, our own truths, storytelling, love. Some big subjects, to be sure, but Paterniti does a great job.

* Saint-Exupéry, by Stacy Schiff. Schiff did a great job with this biography of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the man most well-know for writing The Little Prince. It was clear to me that extreme care was taken with the research for the book. Saint-Exupéry was an interesting and odd fellow. He was emotionally needy, and immature in many, many ways. But he was also, it seems, quite intelligent. This was a great look at his life.

* Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World, by Matthew Goodman. This was such an enjoyable story – and a perfect book to read during the summer. I really liked being an armchair traveler with Bly and Bisland on their around-the-world adventures. Goodman did a great job presenting the race, and I appreciated that he also included historical context and sidebars for what was going on in the world in 1889 and 1890. As well, Goodman provided brief looks at the women’s lives post-race.

* Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital, by Sheri Fink. An absolutely fascinating and challenging read. I am already quite interested in bioethics and, in particular, how ethics are used (or not) in hospital settings, so Fink’s book is a great complement to this field of study and research. There were so many infuriating moments during this read – not because of Fink or her writing, but rather because of what went on during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. I tend to believe i am a fairly upbeat/optimistic person, and though I have curmudgeony moments, I also tend to believe the best about people. And yet…I was continually angered by the behaviours shown in Fink’s investigations. As Fink notes in the book, it is very hard for most of us to know how we would respond or act under the circumstances faced in New Orleans. It was a many layered disaster, but I hope people have learned, and continue to learn, from what was endured.

* Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune, by Bill Dedman. During the read, many worries surfaced over whether Huguette Clark’s caregivers and advisors were taking advantage of her financial generosity. I don’t want to give away too much and spoil it for those who may read it, but I will say that I liked how Bill Dedman presented the information. As a reader I went back and forth on the idea, as circumstances were developing, trying to decide what I truly believed. I kept feeling as though Huguette Clark would make for an awesome subject to fictionalize, the way Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald or The Paris Wife did, with the lives of Zelda Fitzgerald and Hadley Hemingway. I really loved Dedman’s biography of Clark, but there are many unknowables not addressed in the Empty Mansions, and I think it could be fun to fill in the spaces, imagining the whys and hows. Empty Mansions has been optioned for film rights – I think with the right team, this could make for a wonderful adaptation.

* The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky and Death, by Colson Whitehead. I may have curmudgeonly predispositions sometimes. I may have a literary crush on Colson Whitehead. Whatever. I enjoyed this. The last bit of the book wasn’t quite as strong as the rest, and it seemed abrupt at the end. But I had a lot of fun reading it. It’s a great summer read, or a bit of an escapist read for any time, really.

* Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief, by Lawrence Wright. The narrative is compelling and utterly fascinating. And not just a little bit freaky. Scientology is a world that seems so out there, to me (which would probably please L. Ron Hubbard to no end). I stumble – wondering how seemingly intelligent people can end up so deeply involved in practices and beliefs that don’t make sense. Wright makes a lovely case for the fact that there is – of course – faith required in all religions, and all religions employ magic or unnatural events that can’t be explained…but with scientology, that faith seems mistakenly placed. And wright offers plenty of evidence to support this concern. Interesting to note that a documentary adaptation of this book is completed, and HBO has a team of 160 lawyers prepared and ready for the notoriously litigious ‘church’.

 

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My Year In Reading – Stats:

books read: 99
pages read: 34039
international: 30
canadian: 25
american: 44
in translation: 8 (boo!)
fiction: 76
nonfiction: 23
female author: 63
male author: 36
longest read: 826p. (New York)
shortest read: 122p. (Winter Sport: Poems)
average pages: 344p.
publication dates:
– 79 of the books <2000
– 3 in 1800s
– 3 between 1900 and 1940
– 14 between 1940s – 1990s

ratings
1-star: 3
2-star: 27
3-star: 28
4-star: 31
5-star: 10

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I am not a planner with my reading. I very much read by mood. Sometimes I wish I could create a reading plan and stick with it, but it just never works for me.

In 2014, I did pay attention to reading more women authors, as part of the Year of Reading Women, which was declared for 2014. And I also did focus, for a while, on reading the 2014 longlist for the Women’s Prize in Fiction. I have managed 10/20, so far!

One thing I did notice, in reviewing my year in reading, was an unintentional focus on empathy as a theme. I know many believe that reading helps develop and further one’s empathy, but I actually had many books dealing specifically with the idea of empathy. So that was very cool to notice.

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So there you have it – the best of my year in reading!! I am sorry this is such a long post – though my hope is you will discover some new reads of great interest.

Please let me know about your favourite reads in 2014 – I would love to hear your recommendations. (And I would also like to hear if you are a mood reader, or plan your reading. Heck, just talk to me about your reading – book talk is rarely bad talk!)

 

Happy New Year, and may 2015 be filled with lots of wonderful books!

 

Illustration: Jane Mount, My Ideal Bookshelf

 

Nonfiction for Fall

This morning, I had a wonderful opportunity to hear about four fantastic new works of nonfiction. I am so excited for each of these books, and their wonderful authors, that I couldn’t wait to share these recommendations with you!

Many thanks to Ben, of Ben McNally Books, for hosting another successful Authors’ Brunch. Thanks, also, to the Globe and Mail (and books editor Jared Bland) who is an an event sponsor.

Now…on to the BOOKS!

1) First to speak this morning was Charlie Wilkins, and what an interesting man! His new book is called Little Ship of Fools.

LittleShipCover.inddFrom January through March of 2011, a crew of 16 rowers made their way from Morocco to Barbados. The journey was scheduled to take 33 days. It took 53 days. They ran out of food on day 43. No humans were cannibalized during this adventure.  But, desperate for food, Wilkins did consume a vacuum packed piece of chicken, whose packaging had torn, and upon which was clearly written: “If package is ripped or torn, do not consume.”  But hunger can do funny things to people. The issue, to Wilkins, wasn’t ‘What if this chicken is bad?”, but, rather, “What if this chicken is GOOD?” He had to try. He was fine. For two hours.

Since taking on this project, Wilkins noted that so many people have two big questions for him: 1) Why did you do this? and 2) Why would you do this at your age? (Wilkins was 61 at the time of the rowing.)  The short answer: “I felt like it.”  Fair enough.  In chatting with Charlie after the event, I noted that whatever this “thing” is…this thing that makes people want to row across oceans, climb Mount Everest, trek to the South Pole…I just don’t have that “thing” in my DNA. But I have an absolute respect and fascination with people who do. Along with this latest adventure, Wilkins has also walked from Thunder Bay to New York City. He has travelled with the circus, and soaked up the life of the famous Wallenda family. He has worked as a gravedigger. (Wilkins has written books about each of these times in his life.)

Wilkins is a really lovely man! He is curious and interested in our world and often contemplates the importance of our connection to this place we call home. Along with that thinking, comes further wondering: what happens when we become disconnected, fracturing ourselves from the planet? When everything we think about ourselves is stripped away, what happens to us? These are some weighty and important questions. But Wilkins is not a sombre or morose man. Rather, his “compulsion to go”, his inquisitiveness and examining nature have helped him become a wonderful storyteller and excellent human being. I hope you will check out his book!

2) Next at the podium was GQ magazine contributor and eight-time National Magazine Award nominee, Mike Paterniti. His newest book, The Telling Room: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, Revenge, and the World’s Greatest Piece of Cheese has been getting all sorts of positive attention since its summer release, and it’s a book I have been very keen to acquire.

While working on his MFA in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Paterniti worked at a well-known deli, Zingerman’s. While Paterniti felt his MFA in fiction was “qualifying him for nothing”, he could make a sandwich. While working at the delicatessen, he was asked for input on the shop’s newsletter. (See, MFA’s can be useful!) Zingerman’s owner was quite particular in choosing excellent food and loved sourcing high quality artisanal products. One item, featured in the newsletter, caught Paterniti’s eye – a small mention of a type of cheese from Guzmán, Spain, that had been made in a cave by the same family for hundreds of years. For nine years, Paterniti carried this newsletter clipping with him until, finally, he ended up in Spain for a work assignment. With one day off, he decided to visit Guzmán, to try and learn more about the cheese and the man behind the cheese, Ambrosio Molinos de las Heras.

During the 8-hours Paterniti spent with Ambrosio, they sat in the “telling room” – a space within the family cave where everyone would “gather to drink and eat, share stories and histories and dreams.”   Paterniti heard the most incredible tale during his visit, and became wholly intrigued with Ambrosio, the cheese and this funny little village which very much resembles a “Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel – full of magical realism.” (They have a resident, named ‘Emmanuel,’ who is ‘the man that flew that one time’.)

Paterniti says this book is about keeping stories alive and reminding ourselves that we are making and writing our own stories every day.

3)  The inimitable Charlotte Gray was our next author. Her new book will, with hope, attract fiction readers who love a good crime tale. Gray joked about her genre-jumping from serious biographies to CRIME WRITER (!!), with her newest book, The Massey Murder. Gray loves bringing Canada’s “rich and detailed history to life” and is on a “self-appointed mission to share the love of Canadian history.”

 

9781443409254Gray was in a bookstore when she noticed all of the real estate taken up by crime fiction. “A-HA!”, she thought. And decided, in that moment, her next book would be a work that would bring the story of a crime in Canada’s past to life for readers. She began asking around her friends (judges and lawyers) for interesting crime cases she could research – “the more sex and blood, the better!’ – and was amused to discover that Canada, known for being a polite and dignified country, actually has “quite a lot of sleaze” in its past. Gray “had such fun writing this book” and in the end, she really didn’t know who was the victim in this story. Colour me intrigued!

The Massey murder took place at a crucial moment in Canada’s history and gave Gray the chance to explore three big ideas:

* In 1915, Canada had just sent its second contingency of men to WWI and families were beginning to receive notices about their husbands and sons being killed in action.
* Toronto was in a state of turmoil. During the ten years leading up to this crime, the population had doubled and extraordinary social dislocations were taking place. Many people coming into the city were not all from the U.K, and not all were protestant. Immigrant communities were growing and the pains being experienced were impacting the city.
* The Massey murder occurs during a backdrop of the changing role of women in Canadian society. At this time, “a woman either worked as a servant or had a servant.”

4) Our final author for the morning was Adam Leith Gollner. His new book is called: The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief and Magic Behind Living Forever9780307368188_0.

Do you ever have dreams that sit with you for days and days, preoccupying your thoughts? Gollner had such a dream, about a fountain. While thinking and thinking about this dream…he realized it was the fountain of youth, and with this understanding, he had discovered his next book’s topic – immortality. He then spent five years thinking “about this thing that doesn’t really exist, that has no end. Or does it?”

Divided into three sections, belief, science and magic – Gollner spent time with spiritual leaders, people of faith, scientists…and magician David Copperfield. Oh, yes he did. Copperfield, apparently, discovered ‘magic water’ on the island of his vacation home. Dead bugs dipped in this water would spring to life and fly away. Browned, dead leaves would return to green life when put in this water. This is, clearly, some very special water. Gollner was eventually given permission to visit Copperfield on his island. Though Gollner would not be allowed to see the ‘magic water’, Copperfield agreed to talk to him “with great verbal aplomb”, about the water. So…magic water, you guys!!

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I hope you are all very intrigued by each of these books!!  This group of authors was truly fabulous and while their books are very different, it was wonderful to hear about overlapping themes and ideas.  Many people avoid reading nonfiction because they feel as though the genre might be dull or the narrative flow not captivating enough. With these four books, I think lovers of fiction and nonfiction alike will be thrilled.

Please do seek out these books, whether at your local library or independent bookseller. Each of these authors are great – engaging, smart, interesting and positive. They are helping bring our histories and social relationships to life and giving voice to people, times, places and ideas we may not ever otherwise know about.