2014 Best Books of the Year: Recommended by Canadian Writers
We asked some of the Canadian writers we recognized in 2014 to share highlights of their own reading in the past year.
Their favourite titles included new novels from the likes of Michael Crummey, Caroline Adderson, and Steven Galloway; an award-winning history of wolf eradication and the species’ recent return; a plea to reclaim your life by ditching social media and tossing your smartphone; a short story collection from an award-winning author and First Nations activist; and a rare memoir about family secrets and forging a new identity from the ashes of the past.
The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King: His latest novel presents a character that has helped me understand why Thomas is so easy to love: in “Gabriel” there is a wry self-deprecation that is bigger than humour. It’s a naked antidote to the enormity with which he feels the world. Having promised me a copy as he was writing it, Thomas sent me the book up here at Berton House, and it has been a great friend to me. I know I will return to The Back of the Turtle for another full read, several times.
The Unplugging by Yvette Nolan: This elegant play is an ode to a collective journey by a magnificent veteran playwright. Nolan’s concision in this work is breathtaking. In every loaded remark and each unspoken word we hear the complexity of the women she has written. We hear their burdens, loves, and disappointments and through her inimitable knack for comedy, their hopes. We hear the story of Indigenous women who continue to carry the people with grace.
Tara Beagan has been the writer-in-residence at Berton House since October.
Michael Kenyon's luminous Astatine is poetry about things elemental – illness, loss, journeys, recovery, half-lives lived quickly, and time fixed to a crawl. Am I allowed to say something about an "older" book, from 2013? Nicole Pietsch's Sideshow of Merit is a jaw-dropper of a novel, perfect for trying to understand the tide of hidden abuses suddenly in our news.
Alan Cumyn was the writer-in-residence at Berton House between April and June, 2014.
It's my job to read Canadian political books (and write the occasional one), but some of the reading this year was more pleasure than work. At the top of my list, The Morning After, by my colleague Chantal Hebert (with Jean Lapierre), a chronicle of those tense times around the 1995 Quebec referendum. Reliving some of that drama was fascinating, and great preparation for the Scottish referendum campaign I covered in September. Tom Flanagan, former boss and confidante of the current Prime Minister, put out two must-reads this year for Canadian political types: Winning Power, on the modern machinery of campaigning, and Persona Non Grata, a more personal tale of fame and infamy in the Internet age. I'd highly recommend those books to anyone planning to be an informed observer of the 2015 election campaign. And while I don't often expect to like books by political leaders – fearing them to be more advertising than prose – there was lots to like in Justin Trudeau's Common Ground and Elizabeth May's Who We Are. Over the Christmas season, I'm going to read Party of One by Michael Harris, though I have been warned it may make me grumpy about the state of the Canadian political workplace.
Susan Delacourt was a finalist for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her book Shopping for Votes: How Politicians Choose Us and We Choose Them(Douglas & McIntyre).
Erin Frances Fisher
I still have a lot of 2014 publications on my to-read pile, but here are a few books that I've enjoyed so far:
Circus by Claire Battershill
Chez L'arabe by Mireille Silcoff
Prologue for the Age of Consequence by Garth Martens
Erin Frances Fisher won the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her short story “Girl.”
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews: It seems almost redundant to select All My Puny Sorrows in the Writers’ Trust newsletter, when it’s just won the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, but if I’m making honest choices then this would be at the top of the list. Words fail me in trying to describe this courageous novel, which evokes classic tragedy: the exploration of blood ties, the sense of inherited doom, the pathos, and the final sweeping catharsis.
The Dig by Cynan Jones: Jones specializes in short, compact novels, and his third, published this year, is staggeringly good. In rural Wales, a young widower, now struggling to run a farm on his own, becomes aware that there may be an illegal badger dig occurring on his land. Startling, brutal, and punctuated with unforgettable images.
The Free by Willy Vlautin: Vlautin is a multi-talented modern bard, who both sings and writes about the kinds of characters that rarely feature in contemporary fiction. The Free, his latest, contains all of his trademarks; the tale of Leroy Kelvin – a veteran of the Iraq war suffering from major brain trauma – is harrowing and heartbreaking, but Vlautin allows us faint glimmers of hope.
Tyler Keevil won the 2014 Journey Prize for his short story "Sealskin," published in The New Orphic Review.
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews is the book that etched itself deepest inside me and I feel certain will become a lifelong companion. Underneath the stunning writing and outrageous humour are insights – wise and profound – that test the boundaries of human rights and stretch the borders of love. Leanne Simpson's elegant and constantly surprising short-story collection,Islands of Decolonial Love, became another instant intimate. In nonfiction, Glenn Greenwald's No Place To Hide also has far more staying power than the ripped-from-his-own-headlines topic might suggest, laying out a powerful and persuasive case for the duty to defend our fast-disappearing privacies.
Naomi Klein won the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (Knopf Canada).
Alphabet by Kathy Page
I Was There the Night He Died by Ray Robertson
Nora Webster by Colm Toibin
Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
The Stories by Jane Gardam
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
K.D. Miller was a finalist for the 2014 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her collection of short stories All Saints.
I read and loved my friend Michael Harris's The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection. Michael stirs history, technology, philosophy, and personal memoir into a bittersweet narrative that pinballs between gee-whiz revelations and daydream-sweet stillness. It's almost enough to convince me to ditch my social media accounts and toss the smartphone. Almost.
The book on top of my to-read list is Susan Pinker's Village Effect: How Face-to-Face Contact Can Make Us Healthier and Happier. The buzz is that Pinker provides powerful evidence that the secret to urban health, happiness, and success is face-to-face contact. I argue the same thing in Happy City but apparently Pinker delves much deeper into the power of real world sociability. I can't wait to read it!
Charles Montgomery was a finalist for both the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction and the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his bookHappy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design(Doubleday).
Donald J. Savoie
Democracy in Decline: Steps in the Wrong Direction by James Allen
Expect Miracles by David Culver
La constance de Thomas More by Pierre Allard
Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.
Donald J. Savoie was a finalist for the Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book Whatever Happened to the Music Teacher? How Government Decides and Why? (McGill-Queen's University Press).
The Oil Man and the Sea by Arno Kopecky: An exploration of the coastal environment that would be affected by the Northern Gateway Pipeline, sensitively examined and wonderfully executed.
Sweetland by Michael Crummey: Classic Crummey. A delicate weaving of past and present, of landscape and desire, of the very things that tear us apart, but keep us asking for more.
The Homeward Wolf by Kevin van Tighem: A wonderfully readable treatise that's all-encompassing, incorporating issues as diverse as rewilding, conservation policy, and climate change. All that in a book that's lovely to hold, and behold.
Anik See was the writer-in-residence at Berton House between July and September, 2014.
My girlfriend introduced me to Kate Beaton this year. Beaton's sketch comic, Ducks, is an autobiographical account of her time working in the mining industry in Fort McMurray. It is nuanced in its depiction of gender and ecological devastation. It was published online in five parts here.
The poems in Michael Lista's The Scarborough take place on Easter weekend in 1992, when Kristen French was kidnapped, and depict the implications of peripheral evil on family and childhood. Lista renders the eponymous suburb like Flannery O'Connor renders the South, with empathy and humor in the face of violence.
Jakub Starchurski was a finalist for the RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for his short story “Screen Capture.”
Ellen in Pieces by Caroline Adderson: Ellen McGinty's life is in ruins and she's never been good at either kidding herself or denying herself. A wonderful novel-in-stories that plunges us into the middle years of a woman brave enough to go after what she wants. Adderson is at the top of her game – the writing is gutsy, insightful, witty, and alive in every sentence.
Who By Fire by Fred Stenson: In this story of a farm family battling Big Oil, Fred Stenson brings home the troubling reality of Alberta gas extraction. In the first half, the Ryder family fights to save their farm after a sour gas plant goes up; three decades later, their son is a petroleum engineer at Fort McMurray. Who by Fire is an essential, timely, moving novel by an author who knows both these people and this industry to his bones.
Joan Thomas won the 2014 Writers' Trust Engel/Findley Award in recognition of her body of work.
For fiction: Steven Galloway's The Confabulistand Frances Itani's Tell.
I've recently tried to make an attempt to read more poetry. These two titles are not strictly 2014 (since they were published in 2013): Sylvia Legris's Pneumatic Antiphonal and Susan Andrews Grace's Philosopher At the Skin Edge of Being.
Guy Vanderhaeghe delivered the 2014 Margaret Laurence Lecture.
Between Gods by Alison Pick. I loved the deep, exploratory cut into psyche, and the surgical precision with which Pick took a risk toward psychic, cultural, and bodily healing. Her journey helped me in my own.
Pause for Breath by Robyn Sarah. Sarah's imagery blooms through my guardedness to take up a home in the lonely dream-works going on inside me, unbeknownst to my conscious self.
Kathleen Winter was a finalist for the 2014 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her travel memoirBoundless: Tracing Land and Dream in a New Northwest Passage (House of Anansi).
Without knowing it was part of a forthcoming novel, I read (and savoured every sentence of) an excerpt of Caroline Adderson’s Ellen in Pieces in Best Canadian Stories. When I discovered there would soon be 300 or so pages devoted to Ellen I was counting down the days until publication. I wasn’t disappointed. Ellen in Pieces is classic Adderson: funny, smart and disturbingly good. The second book that blew me away this year was the breathtaking (in style, voice and subject) All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. This is an important book and I’m so thrilled by the phenomenal recognition it has received.
Clea Young was a finalist for the 2014 Journey Prize for her short story "Juvenille," published in The Fiddlehead.
Looking for even more great books to read?
See these recent writer recommendations: