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2018 Best Books of the Year

Will Aitken

Will Aitken was a finalist for this year’s $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for his book Antigone Undone: Juliette Binoche, Anne Carson, Ivo Van Hove, and the Art of Resistance.

Recommendations

For me, the most exciting work in Canada right now comes from Indigenous authors. Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot — compact, intense, painful, and wildly funny — goes off like a grenade. Mailhot accomplishes more in one paragraph than many writers manage in a whole book.

nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon bristles with intelligence. A memoir too, but also chock-full of sociopolitical analysis from a brazenly queer perspective. Nixon points out that Indigenous people already live in a post-apocalyptic world, having long since witnessed “the end of their ways of living, being and loving.”

Shout-out too to The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family by Lindsay Wong, a terrific memoir in which peewee hockey is offered up as a possible cure for mental illness. Wong’s accomplished, mercurial style spins dervishly from horror to hilarity to tears.

The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World by US historian Maya Jasanoff, which recently won the Cundill History Prize, dazzles as it follows Conrad’s transition from Polish orphan to English seaman to world-renowned novelist. Her central argument, that Conrad’s world was as globalized and complex as our own, is compelling. Jasanoff’s writing is vivid and personable, her research impeccable, and her analysis of Conrad’s writing as persuasive as it is perceptive.

David Bergen

David Bergen won this year’s $25,000 Matt Cohen Award: In Celebration of a Writing Life.

Recommendations

Zolitude by Paige Cooper
Stories that upend one’s notion of what a story should be. Dense. Beautiful writing. Startling imagery.

Blue River and Red Earth by Stephen Henighan
A collection of stories that explores the misapprehension of other worlds and other cultures. There is longing here, and loss, and a sense of being unmoored.

Dear Evelyn by Kathy Page
Having heard wonderful things about this book, I have it on my books-to-read pile.

Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday
I loved this novel, especially the opening section, in which a young woman falls down the rabbit hole of obsession and acquiescence and misprized love.

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez
A contemplation on art and friendship through the eyes and heart of a writer. It makes you think hard — about what fiction is, about commitment, about ego, about success, about what makes a story, about privilege.

Shashi Bhat

Shashi Bhat won this year’s $10,000 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for her short story “Mute.”

Recommendations

What the Poets Are Doing: Canadian Poets in Conversation edited by Rob Taylor. Reading this book feels like eavesdropping on the conversations of poets, or like I’ve hacked into their email accounts and am reading their personal correspondence. Each chapter features a pair of poets from different generations, chatting about “poetry in the new millennium”: Sue Goyette and Linda Besner, Elizabeth Bachinsky and Kayla Czaga, Armand Garnet Ruffo and Liz Howard, Russell Thornton and Phoebe Wang… One of the best aspects is that when somebody mentions a poem, you turn the page and the poem is there, included in the book. As a creative writing instructor, I’m finding so much in here that I can share with my students to show the kind of lateral thinking involved in writing poetry, and that poetry isn’t written in a vacuum, but reflects and responds to the world we live in.

Greg Brown

Greg Brown was a finalist for this year’s $10,000 Writers’ Trust/McClelland & Stewart Journey Prize for his short story “Love.”

Recommendations

One of my favorite novels of the year was The Amateurs by Liz Harmer. Like everybody, I’ve read a lot of dystopian novels and thought that I was done with them. (What do they have left to teach us that we aren’t already learning in real time?) But Harmer’s novel is different and altogether more interesting and weirder than what you might expect. The novel follows a group of people living out the end of the world in Hamilton, Ontario. The end in this case having been precipitated by a new technological marvel: so-called “ports” that send users off into parallel universes. Or maybe back in time. Maybe into a computer simulation. The tech is mysterious, but uncannily compelling, and all but a handful of people have succumbed to it, leaving the rest to fend for themselves and to wonder about why they’ve been left behind. It’s the rapture by way of iPhones. What I loved about The Amateurs is how it captures something of our present moment’s near-religious fascination with technology. Or, really, how technology and consumer-capitalism have come to fill the space vacated in our lives by religion and community. Plus, every sentence is perfect. You won’t read better sentences this year than the sentences in this book. Think Atwood or Franzen. It’s whip-smart, well-observed, and existentially terrifying. 

Sarah Christina Brown

Sarah Christina Brown was a finalist for this year’s $10,000 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her short story “Kingdom Come.”

Recommendations

Two of my favourite fiction books of the year were Motherhood by Sheila Heti and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Plot-wise, they couldn’t be more different, but I think they are connected in their meditations on choice, time, and purpose.

I also read some great Canadian poetry that came out this year, including We’re Not Going To Do Better Next Time by Lauren Turner and Obits. by Tess Liem. There are many Montreal motifs in both of these collections, and the city imagery illuminates their themes beautifully.

Christopher Dummitt

Christopher Dummitt was a finalist for this year’s $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book Unbuttoned: A History of Mackenzie King’s Secret Life.

Recommendations

My top Canadian pick of 2018 has to be Give and Take: The Citizen Taxpayer and the Rise of Canadian Democracy by Shirley Tillotson. This is tax history. It shouldn’t be interesting, but it is. Fights about taxes are at the foundation of the liberal democracy that Canadians enjoy and often complain about. Give and Take is a must-read.

But I’ve been reading about more than taxes this year. Selfie: How We Became Self Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us by UK journalist Will Storr is a journalistic tour through western ideas of the self, covering everything from suicide and Socrates to Ayn Rand and self-help.

A more political, but equally provoking, book is Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Recognition by Francis Fukuyama. If you haven’t read Fukuyama since his The End of History? then Identity will show just how much you’ve been missing.

Esi Edugyan

Esi Edugyan was a finalist for this year’s $50,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her novel Washington Black.

Recommendations

Deep River Night by Patrick Lane
My Name Is a Knife by Alix Hawley 
History of Violence by Édouard Louis
Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky
Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

Charles Foran

Charles Foran is the recipient of this year’s $50,000 Writers’ Trust Fellowship.

Recommendations

Boy Wonders by Cathal Kelly
This Canadian memoir is a triumph of story-telling, comedic touch, and real insight into how humans are shaped, both by their own natures and environments, and simply — or not so simply — by the vicissitudes of memory. Kelly’s voice is key, a cross of wryness, humility, frankness, and lots of sly philosophical interest in, and certainty about, the human comedy. 

Go, Went, Gone by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated by Susan Bernofsky
A sensation in Europe, this German novel doesn’t so much engage with the top-of-newsfeed story of our time — the largest movement of displaced peoples since the end of WWII — as confront it with ferocious compassion and moral outrage.  If novels are the news that stay the news, Erpenbeck is both newsmaker and pre-emptive historical chronicler, recording all, allowing nothing to be forgotten.

Liz Harmer

Liz Harmer was a finalist for this year’s $10,000 Writers’ Trust/McClelland and Stewart Journey Prize for her short story “Never Prosper.”

Recommendations

My favorite 2018 read so far is Women Talking by Miriam Toews. I inhaled the novel, which is funny and upsetting and moving and full of wise commentary on religion, which is handled with complexity and respect. I also admired its unique narrative voice and framing structure. 

Ben Ladouceur

Ben Ladouceur won this year’s $4,000 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers.

Recommendations

I Don't Want To Know Anyone Too Well by the late Norman Levine and Book of Annotations by debut poet Cameron Anstee are both modest in voice, minimalist in approach, and intimately connected to Ottawa’s Lowertown neighbourhood. But Levine's book is a 600-page brick, while Anstee’s is a slight collection that goes easy on his publisher’s inkjets (several poems have a word count in the single digits). It has been enjoyable consuming the glassine craftsmanship of these kindred texts at such different rates. I devour Anstee’s book whole every time I pry it open, and I’ve been putting dents in Levine’s book all year long.

Jen Neale

Jen Neale was a finalist for this year’s $50,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her debut novel Land Mammals and Sea Creatures.

Recommendations

Three books published in 2018 that I loved were Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot, for its emotional depth and razor-sharp prose, The Very Marrow of Our Bones by Christine Higdon, for its warmth and vivid descriptions of the Fraser Valley, and There There by Tommy Orange, for its vibrant characters and voice.

Kathy Page

Kathy Page won this year’s $50,000 Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize for her novel Dear Evelyn.

Recommendations

Lands of Lost Borders: Out of Bounds on the Silk Road by Kate Harris: this beautifully evoked account of two young women’s travels by bicycle in western China, Turkey, and the Himalayas is at the same time a meditation on the nature of wilderness, our relationship to the planet, and our need to explore.

The Year of No Summer by Rachel Lebowitz: inspired by the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia and its catastrophic impact on climate, as well as on human and animal life, this slim volume is billed as a sequence of lyric essays, but defies description. Imagine the George Saunders of Lincoln in the Bardo and the Rebecca Solnit of A Paradise Built in Hell, shaken, stirred, and condensed.

The new story collection Something for Everyone by Lisa Moore: Moore is a writer who can get away with almost anything — who evokes the solid, everyday world, and at the same time leaves space for extraordinary (or even supernatural) possibilities.

Sandra Perron

Sandra Perron was a finalist for this year’s $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for her memoir Out Standing in the Field: A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer.

Recommendations

In 2018 — thought it was actually published the year prior — was Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga. It is heartbreaking, tragic, and so incredibly important. The stories of those seven high school students stayed with me a long time after I finished the book, and profoundly changed the way I view my role, and ultimately my inaction, in fighting for Canada’s Indigenous communities. This book changed me.  

Another book I found thoroughly mesmerizing is Le meilleur des hommes by Guy Gendron. It is the true story of Canada’s most notorious spy, Guy Biéler. This guy makes James Bond look like Homer Simpson. His courage, his determination, and his resilience gained him the admiration of even his worst enemies in the Nazi regime. Despite months of torture, he would die in the concentration camp of Flossenbürg, without ever giving up any information, not even his name. This book stirred up many emotions in me. Surprisingly, it is an overwhelming sense of envy that followed me throughout the pages of this incredible man’s life. I envied his passion, his bravery, and most of all his unwavering belief that war would bring out the best in men. 

Maria Reva

Maria Reva won this year’s $10,000 RBC Bronwen Wallace Award for Emerging Writers for her short story “The Ermine Coat.”

Recommendations

Women Talking by Miriam Toews. Stunning, original form.

What If This Were Enough by Heather Havrilesky. An essay collection I will be rereading every January from now on, instead of making and breaking New Year’s Resolutions.

Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot. A memoir that reads like poetry.

When We Were Birds by Maria Mutch. Breathtaking sentences.

The Parcel by Anosh Irani. I’m cheating here because this one was published in 2016, but I just finished it and can't leave it off the list!

Judi Rever

Judi Rever was a finalist for this year’s $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her book In Praise of Blood: The Crimes of the Rwandan Patriotic Front.

Recommendations

Mad Blood Stirring: The Inner Lives of Violent Men by Daemon Fairless
Truth and Treason by Rahul Varma
Lèvres de Pierre by Nancy Huston
Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

Trish Salah

Trish Salah was a finalist for this year’s $4,000 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers and will be the writer-in-residence at Berton House from April to June 2019.

Recommendations

I often have a hard time picking favourites, but this year I do have a few.

Little Fish by Casey Plett was far and away my favourite novel published in 2018. I’d been waiting eagerly for it since reading her gorgeous short story collection, A Safe Girl to Love, and Little Fish did not disappoint. From the opening scene of four trans women sitting around in a Winnipeg bar shooting the shit and discoursing on our strange relation to aging and time, I knew I would not put it down until I was done, and not just because I’ve sat in that bar, perhaps with those women. Plett is a mistress of minor key realism, and with Little Fish she gives us an intimately detailed, tonally subtle portrait of a young trans woman and her friends as they live low rent in a prairie town, snow deep in Mennonite history, and negotiate ordinary, sometimes deadly, transphobia, as well as dating and sex work logistics (circa 2015), and life-saving — if not for always — friendships.

Like Little Fish, I’ve been looking forward to Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway for a while now. I’m very much a fan of the passionate and profane truth telling of her second collection Passage and its exquisite mapmaking of relations, both painful and transformative, through her ancestral lands and waters of the Great Lakes. If Passage offers, among many other things, one girl’s approach to transition, Benaway’s Holy Wild manifests a powerful and dynamic, if sometimes vulnerable and tremulous, transsexual Two Spirit womanhood, one deeply conscious of what it is to live the contradictions of this particular “tipping point:” “the balance of this is always violence.” The poems in her collection are confessions and manifestos, callouts and blessings. Beautiful and complicated, and by turns grieving, funny, self-effacing, sexy, and biting, Benaway’s lyrics radiate Two Spirit, Indigenous, and Métis trans subjectivity, desire, and holiness, and light the way to critical and hopeful possibilities for trans feminist love and community.

I liked quite a lot of what little I knew of Tess Liem’s poetry before reading her debut collection, Obits., but I was not prepared for just how powerful, sorrowful, and gorgeous the book is. Liem’s Obits. digs deep into mourning, tenderly excavating its constitutive failures and wandering parts, unsettled remainders, and sidereal lives. This melancholy’s anatomy is deliberately strewn about the plateau, and still waiting on the metro platform. Here, you can glimpse a part, “One evening my grief is glitter in the escalator/ & for a moment I am euphoric” or another “What is the word/ for something that is yours, given/ to you without your asking. ” Throughout the book, Liem writes of loss as mixed and queer woman, not so much focused on the body as a site of identity but as the locus of ongoing yet unpredictable, often violent if sometimes liberatory and swerving, departures.

Finally, but it’s a long way, by frédérique guétat-liviani (trans. by nathanaël), is an achingly beautiful poetic transcription of interviews with people living in the shanties and banlieus of Avignon, people who traveled into precarity across various and incalculable distances and differences. Against what guétat-liviani describes as the normative “inventory of the unnamed,” in which we can read the receipts of racial capitalism, border securitization, and other regimes of exclusion, but it’s a long way renders human voices in their haunting specificity, as chorus and long poem against a collective erasure. The work is as devastating as it is moving, and the French is included after the English, as is an illuminating interview/essay on the conditions of composition for this multi-voiced and interlingual text. Like the others on this list, it is a book I’ve already returned to, and one I anticipate keeping close for some time to come.

Of course, perhaps inevitably, some of my favourite reads of this year were actually books from 2017 that I was slow to pick up: Zoe Leigh Peterson’s Next Year for Sure, David Chariandy’s Brother, Omar Akkad’s American War, Sina Queyras’ My Ariel, Joshua Whitehead’s Full Metal Indigiqueer... but that is another list.

Anakana Schofield

Anakana Schofield was a Berton House writer-in-residence from July to September 2018.

Recommendations

Theory by Dionne Brand
Kudos by Rachel Cusk
Borges, libros y lecturas edited by Laura Rosato and Germán Álvarez
Almost Never by Daniel Sada, translated by Katherine Silver
Queen Solomon by Tamara Faith Berger
Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life by Yiyun Li
In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum
Social Practices by Chris Kraus
Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight
Bookshops: A Reader’s History by Jorge Carrión
Trickster Drift by Eden Robinson
The Truth About Luck by Iain Reid
Wayside Sang by Cecily Nicholson
Prison Industrial Complex Explodes by Mercedes Eng
Heaven Is All Goodbyes by Tongo Eisen-Martin
Experimental Animals: (A Reality Fiction) by Thalia Field
Sharp by Michelle Dean

Jordan Scott

Jordan Scott won this year’s $25,000 Latner Writers’ Trust Poetry Prize.

Recommendations

Flow: Poems Collected and New by Roy Miki, edited by Michael Barnholden
Almost Islands: Phyllis Webb and the Pursuit of the Unwritten by Stephen Collis
All Our Relations: Finding a Path Forward by Tanya Talaga
Y: Oppenheimer, Horseman of Los Alamos by Aaron Tucker
Branches by Mark Truscott
Looking for Livingstone: An Odyssey of Silence by M. NourbeSe Philip

Ted Rowe

Ted Rowe was a finalist for this year’s $25,000 Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing for his book Robert Bond: The Greatest Newfoundlander.

Recommendations

Here are the top three books I read this year, in no particular order (all are 2017 publications):

We’ll All Be Burnt in Our Beds Some Night by Joel Thomas Hynes, a raw stream-of-consciousness story of the rambles of a St. John’s corner boy.

Out Standing in the Field: A Memoir by Canada’s First Female Infantry Officer by Sandra Perron, the from-the-heart memoir of the first female infantry officer in Canada’s armed forces.

Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire by Kurt Andersen, a sweeping historical look at American popular culture.

Joshua Whitehead

Joshua Whitehead was a finalist for this year’s $4,000 Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBTQ Emerging Writers.

Recommendations

Heart Berries: A Memoir by Terese Marie Mailhot is a brave, honest, painful, and generous delve into the livelihoods of being an Indigenous woman, writer, mother, lover, storyteller, daughter, kin, and caretaker. Mailhot’s memoir is both medicinal and unflinching about the realities that impact us as Indigenous peoples from intergenerational trauma through to the oftentimes invisible labour of being accountable to one’s mental health (itself being a byproduct, at times, of settler colonialism). This book accounts for the ethics of writing, the stakes of orating, and the accountability we must pay to those we story-tell into the world. “Nothing is too ugly for this world,” Mailhot writes, “it’s just that people pretend not to see.” Her words stick to me and I am all the better for it. 

nîtisânak by Lindsay Nixon is nêhiyâw storytelling at its finest: at once memoir, poetry, creative non-fiction, and prose, this book encapsulates, through its form, the complexity of surviving as a 2SQ person in today’s world. Here, 2SQness is never placed into the peripheries, it dances onto centre stage and never lets you leave its (en)visions. This book moves from the prairies through to the UK and weaves nêhiyâwewin into English to offer us new vantage points of how to view this world we live in. 

Holy Wild by Gwen Benaway is a brilliant manifesto and curation of stories that detail the realities of trans Indigeneity in all of its complex homes. Here Anishinaabemowin summons the speaker into a world of her own creation, one which holds Indigeneity and 2SQTness as a viable whole rather than a severed braid. It is this bundle of medicine that the speaker offers us as we plunge into the livelihoods of what it means to desire and be desired, of how whiteness curates queerness, and of how the body is a wildness that flowers into being. 

Trickster Drift by Eden Robinson is an amazing second entry into her Trickster trilogy. Here we follow Jared, still as coy and as frank as ever, from the small town of Kitimat through to the depths of Vancouver’s urbanity. The magic is very much alive here as Jared melts into a life of tricksters, witches, shape-shifters, and monsters that sometimes look all too much like us. Here even the floorboards open and we find worlds hidden in the semantics of words. I read Jared as our Indigenous Harry Potter, we are all gifted the privilege of growing up alongside him as he develops from teenager into young adult, high school into post-secondary, drug dealer into academic, and it's such an honour to follow the blueprints he sets out for us. This is a fantastic ride that everyone needs to take.

Lindsay Wong

Lindsay Wong was a finalist for this year’s $60,000 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction for her memoir The Woo-Woo: How I Survived Ice Hockey, Drug Raids, Demons, and My Crazy Chinese Family.

Recommendations

My must-read list for 2018 includes: That Time I Loved You by Carrianne Leung, I’m Afraid of Men by Vivek Shraya, Sodom Road Exit by Amber Dawn, Little Fish by Casey Plett, Dear Current Occupant by Chelene Knight, and Motherhood by Sheila Heti. These are all brilliant women authors who inspire me with their bold, powerhouse voices.

Alissa York

Alissa York won this year’s $25,000 Writers’ Trust Engel/Findley Award.

Recommendations

The Quickening Maze by Adam Foulds
The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore by Kim Fu
Beirut Hellfire Society by Rawi Hage
Shark Drunk: The Art of Catching a Large Shark from a Tiny Rubber Dinghy in a Big Ocean by Morten Strøksnes
Women Talking by Miriam Toews
Starlight by Richard Wagamese