2013 Best Books of the Year: Recommended by Canadian Writers
We asked a number of Canadian writers to share their reading highlights from the past year.
Their favourite titles included new voices like Andrew F. Sullivan and Dina Del Bucchia, new works by established writers like Joseph Boyden and Anne Carson, Dave Bidini’s tale of doomed fanhood, a picture book about a father-and-son built tree house, and an anthology on shyness.
All We Want is Everything by Andrew F. Sullivan
The Journey Prize Stories #25
In Calamity's Wake by Natalee Caple
1996 by Sara Peters
My list might include only poetry, short stories, and metahistoriographic fiction, but I promise all these works are highly readable and engaging (not to mention Canadian). The Hamiltonian in me is particularly partial to Andrew Sullivan's gritty debut dedicated to industrial landscapes and downtrodden characters.
Laura Clarke won this year’s RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her collection of poems “The Mule Variations.”
I really enjoyed reading This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz this year [though it was published in 2012]. I love the vitality and playfulness of Diaz's narrative voice and the window he provides into such a specific – yet universal – world and culture – that of Dominican immigrants in the US. I like the loosey-goosey way the stories connect and call back to one another, sometimes via the narrator, sometimes chronologically – you finish one story and can never predict where in time the next one will be situated of who will be doing the telling, but you're secure in the knowledge you won't be leaving the vivid and heartbreaking world of close-knit family and community Diaz has established.
Lynn Coady was a finalist for this year's Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for her collection of stories Hellgoing.
Ink on Paper, published by Nightwood, is Brad Cran's second book of poetry. Cran is a refreshingly political and engaged writer with an agenda for change yet he avoids being didactic. Many of the poems are lyrical satiric pleasures that tick like a small bomb about to blow away your expectations or make you grin. In "Facebook" he writes, "Now that they have actually invented / something that is worse for writers / than alcohol." Other pieces in the book show us how essays can cross the genre-borders and end up in the province of poetry.
Sandra Djwa just won the Governor-General's Award for nonfiction for Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page published by McGill-Queen's University Press. The late poet chose Djwa as her biographer, and in some ways, the book is the completion of one of the literary world's most poignant love stories. Years before this volume, Djwa wrote the biography of Frank Scott, with whom the young Page had had an affair when she lived in Montreal, and whom, Djwa claimed, Page never stopped loving though she had a happy and long marriage with her husband Arthur Irwin. The plotting of Page's determination to be a poet, before Canadian literature became the force it is today, will give any writer heart.
Anthologies keep arriving on my door step. The most interesting one this year is Shy, a collection of poetry and essays edited by Naomi Lewis and Rona Altrows and published by the University of Alberta Press. Who knew shyness was an issue for so many well-known writers, including Steven Heighton (Steven Heighton?) and Don McKay. Here's a sample stanza from Janis Butler Holm from "Are You an Introvert? Take This Simple Quiz?" : 3. In a crowd, you / a. look for people you know / b. pinch bottoms with impunity / c. struggle not to scream, run, implode as though you were a dying star."
Lorna Crozier delivered this year’s Margaret Laurence Lecture.
There have been so many good Canadian books published recently, that I've been having deciding what to read next. I always love Michael Winter's work and was very taken with his novel, Minister Without Portfolio. Colin MacAdam's A Beautiful Truth is a compelling, artful, moving page-turner; I've recommended it to everyone. Hard to believe that I hadn't read Lisa Moore before this year's Caught. She's just a great writer and there are scenes in that book that made me envious of her talent.
Since I also write books for kids, I have a good excuse for reading-and buying them--even though my kids are older now. My absolute favourites this year are Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen's The Dark and Jane, the Fox, and Me by Fanny Britt and Isabelle Arsenault. They have shown me once more that great children's book are for every age.
Cary Fagan was a finalist for this year’s Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for his novel A Bird’s Eye.
How Poetry Saved My Life by Amber Dawn. This memoir! I can't express all the emotions I experienced while reading it. I adored Dawn's novel Sub Rosa, and this book only increases my fervour for her work. In The Hottest Summer in Recorded History Elizabeth Bachinsky unleashes her technical prowess while remaining playful. She's one of my favourite voices in Canadian poetry; anything she writes is a must read for me. For years I've admired Meredith Quartermain's poetry. Her debut novel, Rupert's Land, contains language that's as honed, innovative and fierce as anything she's written before.
Doretta Lau was a finalist for this year’s Journey Prize for her short story “How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?”
2013 was a great year for Canadian poets – I admired and enjoyed Elizabeth Bachinsky's The Hottest Summer in Recorded History, Anne Carson's masterful Red Doc>, Dina Del Bucchia's sharply funny Coping with Emotions and Otters, Daphne Marlatt's Liquidities, and Sara Peters' dark, witty 1996. In terms of fiction, I couldn't put down Rachel Kushner's superb The Flamethrowers.
Laura Matwichuk was a finalist for this year’s RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her collection of poems “Here Comes the Future.”
Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter is mesmeric and vivid. There are forest fires, and a whale that nudges a dory, houses that roll from one plot of land to another, and the talismanic shadow of a beaver swishing under a couple of feet of ice below Henry Hayward's feet. This story is fable-like, full of weltering plot turns, and characters who fall in love the old-fashioned way, with lots of halts and re-starts and patience and geysers of love and sex and vulnerability and trust.
Maxine by Claire Wilkshire is spare and hilarious. A novel about anxiety, writing, being afraid, and overcoming fear, about a woman who makes friends with a young boy and how they see each other through. Gleeful writing, sharp to the point of piercing. I love this book.
Are You Ready To Be Lucky by Rosemary Nixon. These stories are as witty and honest and ultra-smart as a collection by Mavis Gallant. I need say no more, but I will. Hilarious, taut, honest, and wild. Get your hands on it asap.
Elizabeth de Mariaffi's How To Get Along With Women has a surprise on every page. Spectacular images. Tight stories that at swift and deep at the same time.
And though it didn't come out this year, I recently read Miriam Toews' Irma Voth. A book about a lot of things, but especially about art and how it forms us and why it matters and what gets sacrificed to make it. What a unique voice, how absolutely funny and bittersweet and how redemptive. Not an easy thing to pull off, humour and redemption all rolled up in one novel, but it's there!
Lisa Moore won this year's Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award. She was also a finalist for the Rogers Writers' Trust Fiction Prize for her novel Caught.
The War on Science by Chris Turner is a brilliant expose on the dismantling of environmental science and legislation by an extreme right wing government. Franke James’ Banned On The Hill is a witty and colourful look at the nation's ruinous addiction to bitumen and overt government censorship. Monoculture: How One Story is Changing Everything by F.S Michaels is a provocative and insightful essay on how fraudulent economic thinking has undermined our culture by becoming the dominant story. No other civilization has surrendered so much to one false god. Steve Coll’s Private Empire, a hard boiled history of Exxon Mobil explains the political culture now debasing Canada's parliamentary traditions. (Stephen Harper grew up in an Exxon (Imperial) household.) And Joe Haldeman The Forever War is simply one of the best science fiction books written – and by a Vietnam War veteran.
Andrew Nikiforuk won this year’s Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life.
I love Cary Fagan's writing for children, and it was a treat to read A Bird's Eye. I grew up in Toronto, and walking the night streets along with Benjamin and Corrine was both familiar and magic. A perfect pairing of words and images, In the Tree House (by Andrew Larsen; Dusan Petricic, illustrator) is a child's eye view of real events and unspoken thoughts and feelings. The cover made me pick it up and it just got better with each page. Don Gillmor’s Mount Pleasant was funny and terrifying; watching a character slide into debt is too scary! I'm obsessed with polar exploration, and a Robert Falcon Scott fan, so it seemed only fair to learn about the other guy and read The Last Viking: The Life of Roald Amundsen by Stephen R. Bown. The book was fascinating and fair, a good read. I'm still a Scott fan, but now I grudgingly admire Amundsen. I have been hopping up and down waiting to read Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda and finally got it for my birthday this week! We spend summers in the area and I have long been interested in the history, plus I loved Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce. I can't wait to dive into this one.
Barbara Reid won this year’s Vicky Metcalf Award for Literature for Young People.
By far, one of the most captivating books I read this year was Louis Hamelin's fantastically ambitious (and achieved) novel of the FLQ crisis, October, 1970. I cannot think of an English-Canadian novel as gargantuan and compelling and, inevitably, on occasion as admirably unwieldy as this since – well, it may be indecorous to say so, but why not – my father Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here. Hamelin, who has been frank about that great novel of Canada's influence, has all the same awed, heady, libidinous Canadian appetites focused upon the singular historical moment of October 1970 and finding their satisfaction but also frustration in our extraordinary but ultimately begrudging landscape and in our politics, of which we generally know so little and that are made fascinating but also comic and heartbreakingly human here. And how Hamelin also revels in the singular opportunity our joint country offers in the sort of myth-making that would pass for hubris in other places. Such images. Such places. Such characters. I'm sorry that our Giller and Canada Reads judges, who long listed Hamelin's novel, didn't have a similar audacity and push this extraordinary novel onto their short lists. English-speaking Canadians read too few Québecois novels in translation, and are worse off because of this oversight. Hamelin's Constellation of the Lynx (the original French title) that, like the recent history he knows can never be wholly or accurately understood, is made up of pinpoints of light that, even as we consider them in whatever arrangement suits us, no longer exist. This in itself is a point of view that makes the novel worth reading, though far from the only one. I loved this novel, and will be reading it again over the holidays.
Noah Richler was a finalist for this year’s Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book What We Talk About When We Talk About War.
My books of the year include Andrew Sullivan's All We Want is Everything, a dense collection that hasn't gotten enough credit for how surreal or fantasy-tinged some of stories are. Not all brute realism, here, but Andrew does that well, too. Also on my list is Colin McAdam's A Beautiful Truth. I did not expect to read a Canadian book this year that features, in part, a chimpanzee obsessed with a Brooke Shields film, but I'm delighted that it happened. Lastly, the latest Julian Barnes, Levels of Life, is a short and intense piece that imperceptibly passes from history to fiction to memoir, with Barnes carefully keeping the strings hidden, tying the whole short book into a single narrative.
Naben Ruthnum won this year’s Journey Prize for his short story “Cinema Rex."
All We Want is Everything by Andrew F. Sullivan. These stories are perfectly made and perfectly disconcerting; like terrible, beautiful accidents you can't look away from and find yourself not wanting to. This debut collection comes from a name that will one day be taken for granted in Canadian fiction, so read it now as insurance of future cultural capital.
Need Machine by Andrew Faulkner. Another debut from another talented Andrew. This is "a voice of a generation" does poetry: a book that is as suspicious of certainty as it is capable of sounding very certain. It's inimitably smart, funny, and exacting. Just a totally amazing, awesome book, and if you don't read it we can't be friends anymore.
Suzannah Showler was a finalist for this year’s RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her collection of poems “The Reason and Other Poems.”
I like my books battered and water-stained. My favourites tag along for years and I can rate them according to their damage. A year isn’t really enough time for me to pass any judgments, but here are a few that I’m guessing will sustain some wear.
red doc> by Anne Carson. Time is its own slippery demigod in Carson’s red doc> where Greek myth swerves into modernity. This verse-novel trampolines Carson’s mythic characters from Autobiography of Red into a damaged, grownup, alienated later-life, where G, Sad and Ida hit the road and cruise gorges and pastures and a psychiatric clinic, fishtailing through strange memories and psychological back eddies, and eventually the slow hours at G’s mother’s deathbed. Carson’s text is tensed and rhythmic. I keep diving into this book for a good surf-pounding of stunning images and mortal undertow.
White Piano by Nicole Brossard. I use this book for its tiny vertigos. Dense, imagistic, bolting mouths, Brossard’s poems track both the ominous and intimate, the tactile and the hallucinatory. It’s a survival strategy I need for the mundane days: to discretely hunt the disorienting whorls that disrupt the surface.
Leaving Howe Island by Sadiqa de Meijer. Sadiqa de Meijer’s Leaving Howe Island is a pressing and tender poetry debut that layers up transparencies: ancestral memories, the markings of race, the flux of identity, domestic and strange intimacies, the body’s perpetual displacements. These lyric poems feel channeled through an acute sensing body, a body physically traversing private bedrooms and public galleries, animate city streets and surging river channels—all both beautiful and marred—and everywhere trailing a comet of sorrow.
Clearing the Plains by James Daschuk. Stepping off the poetry bus for a moment, one of the really important books of this year has to be James Daschuk’s Clearing the Plains. This disturbing account excavates a plains history of disease, starvation, and the “politics of ethnocide”—Canada’s deliberate, brutal subjugation of Indigenous peoples. Daschuk lays out the evidence of theft and violence upon which Canada is founded, and in doing so, traces the injustice and racism that mark our country today. This is history we need to know.
The Place of Scraps by Jordan Abel. Another take on history: in this unusual and unsettling first book of poetry, Jordan Abel appropriates and carves up Marius Barbeau’s Totem Poles, an early-twentieth-century ethnographic text that reports on Pacific Northwest cultures, including Abel’s own ancestral Nisga’a Nation. Reading as a white third-generation settler, I encounter my own voyeuristic buzz as I read Barbeau’s accounts, and then as I encounter Abel’s multiple erasures of this text, his sculptural reworkings, my own gaze is reworked and screened and complicated. One of the pieces that keeps sliding into my mind’s eye is composed entirely of white space and parentheses. Something to sit with, this trace.
Melanie Siebert was a writer-in-residence at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat from April to June.
Canadian journalist Matthieu Aikins published an excellent e-book this year, Bird of Chaman, Flower of the Khyber, describing his brave journeys on the world's most dangerous trucking routes. I haven't yet read all of the nominees for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction, but I'm very much enjoying J.B. MacKinnon's The Once and Future World, which is breathtaking in its scope of research and written with mastery. The wonderful folks at my publishing house recently gave me a copy of David Finkel's Thank You for Your Service, a strong follow-up to his iconic The Good Soldiers; these are painstaking accounts of war's trauma.
Graeme Smith won this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for his book The Dogs are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan.
The Love Monster by Missy Marston is a novel with a protagonist named Margaret H. Atwood, who survives heart-ache and an encounter with an alien. Marston is seriously funny and hopefully seriousness about the kernel sadness in each of us.
Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. Geoff Dyer unlocks his obsession with the Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, in this humorous, intelligent book. A casual paean to the idiosyncratic wonder of human curiosity. You don’t have to know the film to enjoy the book.
Andrew Steinmetz was a finalist for this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for his book This Great Escape.
I was obliged to spend entirely too much time this year reading the blatherings of the current occupants of Parliament's majority benches, but I did manage to squeeze in a couple of great new nonfiction books. The first is The Happy City by Charles Montgomery. There are any number of guides telling us how to build better cities, but The Happy City addresses the more important question of why — with impressive thoroughness and verve. I'm also really enjoying Paul Wells' The Longer I'm Prime Minister. Nothing else I've read about our current PM has brought his thinking, his motivations, his tactics, and why they succeed into such clear focus. I've also just picked up Todd Babiak's Come, Barbarians, which I'm very much looking forward to reading. Not many writers I'd recommend before reading, but Todd's definitely in that category.
Chris Turner was a writer-in-residence at the Berton House Writers’ Retreat from January to March.
In Keon and Me, Dave Bidini writes, “I used to love winter until the Leafs ruined it.” All Leafs fans can relate to this tale of doomed fanhood but, more importantly, to the young Bidini struggling to find a way in the world and out of the way of the bully who tormented him in school. A uniquely Canadian memoir and biography rolled into one.
Ann Shin’s Family China is a book of poetry, a website, a video project, and an ongoing archive of people breaking stuff. Shin asks us what family heirlooms and other objects we treasure, and which we would love to destroy.
Andrew Faulkner’s Need Machine is an assured and quirky poetic debut from a talented young poet whose needs might not match your own, but who will lead you to cultivate new desires.
Aleksandar Hemon’s The Book of My Lives is a memoir told in a book of essays by the “Genius Award”-winning Bosnian-American writer. His essays on his childhood political exploits will leave you in hysterics while his essay on the loss of his young daughter will leave you in tears.
Susannah Cahalan’s Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness is a frightening tale of a young reporter’s horrific—and alarmingly inexplicable—descent into illness and madness and all the scientific breakthroughs required for eventual diagnosis and recovery.
Priscila Uppal was a finalist for this year’s Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her book Projection: Encounters with My Runaway Mother.
For a recommended text of 2013, I'll put forth Christine Eddie's The Douglas Notebooks. Spare and elegant, Eddie’s The Douglas Notebooks is a fable rooted in Quebec folklore. Eddie has a poet’s touch, as she creates psychologically complex characters with a few deft strokes of the pen. The Douglas Notebooks is a delicately traced story of redemption and rebirth. This is the universe held in miniature.
Barry Webster received an Honour of Distinction for this year’s Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LBGT Emerging Writers.
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