John Jeremiah Sullivan, the author of Pulphead. Photo by Harry Taylor.
As we did in 2009 and 2010, Maisonneuve asked anyone who wrote for us in 2011 to send us a few words on the best books they read this year. Most were published in 2011; a few weren't. The result is a highly incomplete portrait of a year of reading.
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011
John Jeremiah Sullivan's new book of essays, Pulphead, is a must-read. In a voice part spoken-sounding and bloggy, part arch and Melvillian, he scours his strange country, especially south of the Mason-Dixon, for the brilliant grotesques the land seems to cultivate in unusual numbers. There's Michael Jackson, Axl Rose, the cast of The Real World—but also obsessive explorers of indigenous burial grounds and parasitic insurance lobbyists. Sullivan is great as a collector of high-Americana, but best when the sideshow has grazed him in some way: his most affecting pieces are woven with family lore, as in the story of the southern novelist to whom Sullivan was an apprentice of sorts, or the mad, visionary French botanist who came to live with a very-great-grandmother of Sullivan's. His vision of America is at turns generous and unstinting, nauseous and in love, but his infectious fascination with his subject—his native land—is a constant.
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson
Crown Publishers, 2011
Erik Larson is an historian with the soul and the skills of a novelist. In his latest book, he tells the story of William E. Dodd, a history professor from Chicago who, in 1933, is chosen by President Franklin Roosevelt to be America's first ambassador to Nazi Germany. Dodd and his family settle in Berlin just as the Nazis are consolidating their power. The book paints a remarkable and heartbreaking portrait of a city that is collectively losing its moral compass, acquiescing, often against its better judgment, to the increasing brutality and lunacy of the Nazi thugs.
But the real star of the book is Dodd's twenty-four year old daughter Martha. Flirtatious, self-centred, immature and indiscrete, Martha throws herself into Berlin's social life with gusto. She has romantic relationships with Nazis, Soviet spies and just about anyone else who tickles her fancy. At one point, a Nazi friend calls to tell her that "Hitler needs a woman...a lovely American woman could change the whole destiny of Europe." Martha volunteers for the task and attends lunch with the Fuhrer, but alas, there is no chemistry between them. In the Garden of Beasts would be worth reading if all it did was introduce us to the fascinating Martha, a character so vivid she seems to have stepped out of a novel rather than a history book. But Larson uses the lives of William and Martha Dodd to offer up a unique perspective on a pivotal year, when a great city and a great people are faced with a choice between civilization and barbarism, and, tragically, choose the latter.
The Beggar's Garden by Michael Christie
Michael Christie's first book is a quiet, nine-story study of Vancouver. Featuring a teenaged car thief, a woman who worked at Woodward's, an off-kilter bank manager and a resident of Riverview Psychiatric Hospital, among others, The Beggar's Garden is notable for its ability to get close to its characters. Christie's writing is honest, subtle and vivid, run through with garbage-raiding raccoons, souvenir spoons and pre-roasted chickens.
Atavismes: Histoires by Raymond Bock
Le Quartanier, 2011
Judge this book by the cover, or by its title, anyway. "Atavisme," or atavism, in English, comes from the Latin atavus. It means a great-great-grandfather, or an ancestor. In biology it's the tendency to revert to an evolutionary throwback. The word's kind of an awkward anachronism in itself, but it's a good word, and Raymond Bock's Atavismes: Histoires is well named. Bock's thirteen stories (and the French word for story, cleverly, also means history) are haunted by place and by history, both personal and political. The book's timeline is fat. It opens with a story about a sloppy political kidnapping, and shifts just as deftly in vernacular and cadence between a wounded coureur des bois and the quotidian malaise of a young contemporary couple with a new baby. Atavismes anchors New France's first settlements to the present day, and the book traces the political ramifications and the daily, grinding consequences of Quebec's history. But almost abstractedly. The fact that each story is specific to its characters means they're not overshadowed by an ungainly historical project. The confluence of cultural, political, and personal histories, rather, angle out at each other and punctuate a very spare landscape. It's a daring scope. Thirty-year-old Bock's first collection is a subtle reckoning with the past. It's something new. I'm excited about this book.
Modern Canadian Poets, edited by Evan Jones and Todd Swift
Carcanet Press, 2010
Although I happen to be named in the introduction to the anthology Modern Canadian Poets, so too are many other Canadians, none of whom should feel that they can't discuss this, the most daring reassessment of our country's canon in years. Gone are the minor poets masquerading as major talents: the Atwoods, the Purdys. In their place, editors Evan Jones and Todd Swift assemble a new core that includes reliable standbys (A. M. Klein, P. K. Page, and Margaret Avison) and those previously neglected cult figures the standbys need to get used to sharing anthologies with (George Johnston, John Glassco, and Anne Wilkinson). Anne Carson, of course, must be tolerated, and the three pages devoted to Dionne Brand—featuring such lines as "you feel someone brush against you, / on the street, you smell leather, the lake, / the coming leaves, the rain's immortality / pierces you"—can be skipped easily enough. Most of the rest of the inclusions are sound. In a better world, which is to say an alternate reality, this compact and highly readable anthology would be the book your CanLit course makes you buy.
No End in Strangeness by Bruce Taylor
Cormorant Books, 2011
Discovering the poems of Bruce Taylor in Carmine Starnino's 2005 anthology The New Canon was like stumbling on those fragments of the Beach Boys' SMiLE, in the Good Vibrations box set. Where have these been all my life? Are there more of them? How might they be acquired? But when I presented Taylor's name to two Canadian poet-editors, some time ago, the savvy pair went blank. Thankfully, No End in Strangeness carries forward some of the Quebec poet's early work like "Social Studies," which I should've voted the Best Canadian Poem Ever when asked for my pick a few years back. The new stuff is unbelievable, too. Here's the first verse paragraph of the first poem in the book, "Nature":
The assignment was,
you took some moistened bread
and put it under glass for seven days
and soon a tiny wilderness of mould
would start to grow, as each
of several dots of fuzz
reached out to where it hoped another was.
And all these heedless, headless,
greedy intertwingled beings
to own a piece of food you didn't eat
and turn it into one continuous
thatch of felt,
a little Manitoba in the jar.
Also, look up "Orphée," the one in which the speaker is tasked with taking home a full-length mirror in his car, the flat surface "just lying there, / stiff as a pharaoh, / looking up through the sunroof at nothing, / at whatever was above us in the sky / as we went by." Poets as good as Bruce Taylor deserve cult followings, those who have the spare time to speculate about, and anticipate the release of, and leak bootlegged bits of, long-gestating works of genius like No End in Strangeness. Where have you been all of Taylor's life?
Better Living Through Plastic Explosives by Zsuzsi Gartner
Hamish Hamilton Canada, 2011
If you haven't seen the original Footloose (I'll assume everyone saw this year's remake) go watch it right now. Okay? You're back? Listen: Zsuzsi Gartner is the Ren McCormack to Canada's Bomont. I don't know what happened in this country—whether some teenagers died while driving home after reading mindfuckingly awesome short stories, and ever since mindfuckingly awesome short stories have been outlawed here or what. Okay, that's not entirely fair: there's not a complete dearth of mindfuckingly awesome short stories in this country, but no one has big-city moves like Gartner does. She's also basically Marty McFly in Back to the Future (remake coming soon). And let's say that Canada is that kid in the Hill Valley square, and the short story is that box thing Marty McFly steals from the kid and breaks into a proto-skateboard. In Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, Gartner busts out all these wicked tricks the likes of which us Canadians aren't likely to see for another thirty years. And then she hands the short story back to us and is like, "Thanks, kid."
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2006
"Maybe it was the converse of the way amputees feel pain in a missing limb. He really was there all those years, a flesh-and-blood presence steaming off the wallpaper, digging up the dogwoods, polishing the finials...smelling of sawdust and sweat and designer cologne. But I ached as if he were already gone."
Alison Bechdel's luminous graphic memoir about the life and early death of her father saved me from a summer of maudlin introspection and political angst in the weeks before the heavily foregrounded tenth anniversary of a certain global tragedy. In August I found a new copy of Fun Home at Pulp Fiction, a secondhand bookstore, and promptly granted myself a full media blackout. Hiding behind the gothic silver-and-teal cover, I successfully avoided all reporters hunting for Muslim opinions on a demoralizing lost decade. Escaping into the pages of a life utterly different from mine was a great relief.
To be sure, Bechdel raises maudlin introspection to a high art, rich in literary allusions and exacting period details; scenes of sometimes shocking frankness (a drawing of the Bechdel children in their pajamas at the top of the stairs, listening to their parents fighting below, makes me flinch) are matched by their dexterously crafted subtlety (passages from Fitzgerald and Camus are wonderfully read as metaphors for different phases of her father's life). Fun Home's confidently nonlinear structure impresses me most—the way Bechdel repeatedly circles back to the death of her father at age forty-four, layering it with insights gleaned from different vantage points of her own life, the memories her mother and father have recounted, and from the books Bechdel and her father read, separately and together. This whole carefully crafted series of images and allusions comes across with breathtaking generosity and grace, with the naturalness and intimacy of a long confession on a porch swing, on a late summer night.
The Chairs Are Where The People Go by Sheila Heti with Misha Glouberman
Faber & Faber, 2011
For The Chairs Are Where the People Go, Toronto novelist Sheila Heti wrote a follow-up to last year's How Should A Person Be? by interviewing the male half of her favourite couple. (How Should A Person Be? centered on her friendship with real-life painter Margeaux Williamson, who acts as Heti's confidant and muse, and is the partner of Misha Glouberman.) In The Chairs Are Where The People Go, an enigmatic series of seventy-two short essays, Toronto personality Misha Glouberman—master of charades, public-space advocate and Harvard graduate (and full disclosure: a friendly acquaintance of mine)—tells Heti everything he knows. The topics vary in scope (Glouberman is just as enthusiastic talking about how he fell in love as he is detailing the first time he taught John Zorn's unpublished noise composition Cobra), but through these conversations you find one man's approach to cultivating a community and personal meaning in life. It's inspiring, unnerving and unforgettable, just like Misha is in real life. When I finished this book I almost wished that everyone in the world had their own personal diagesis of everything they believed in, until I realized that no one would be able to parse it quite like Misha. This book is for anyone who cares passionately about anything.
Picture This by Lynda Barry
Drawn & Quarterly, 2010
What It Is by Lynda Barry
Drawn & Quarterly, 2008
I've liked Lynda Barry since I was ten and wore a Poodle With a Mohawk t-shirt. But I resisted these last two books—Picture This and What It Is—for a long time because they had the whiff of self-help about them, and generally self-help books, especially ones about "the artistic process," give me allergies, so steeped are they in wankery and pat philosophizing and patchouli. Thankfully I got over it, because these books are wonderful—startling, eerie dispatches from the author's subconscious that touch upon the numinous nature of creativity without being preachy or cute. Barry's thrall spreads in ever-widening circles from the pages. The stories and characters she uses to illustrate her flow of ideas feel mysterious and true, even when their origins and meaning are elusive. Definitely a pair of books I will keep around for a long time.
Intention Implication Wind by Ken Sparling
Pedlar Press, 2011
Ken Sparling is the one of the funniest, most heartfelt, uncompromising, perceptive and mind-altering writers in Canada. He will change the way you think, read, write (if you do such a thing) and see the world. Intention Implication Wind is every bit as good as his last book, Book, which was nominated for a $20,000 prize.
Night by David Harsent
Faber & Faber, 2011
In this follow-up to his Forward Prize-winning collection, Legion, UK poet and translator David Harsent has given us subtle and aesthetically exquisite meditations on the quest for the self. The collection's three-poem garden sequence, for instance, asks us to perceive of ourselves as "some rash/report of you: figment, divertimento, little white lie." Everything is up for reconsideration; in "The Garden in Dream," the whole place is "cluttered with sunlight," and "Something half-heard as the last guest leaves" is just one of many beautiful oneiric moments throughout this magnificent, lush book. I was particularly enamoured of a cycle of five poems, "The Queen Bee Canticles," in which various personifications in the form of bees illuminate history, art and cruelty almost like Greek tragedies: "When he picked her up in the Palais de Danse she was wearing / her downtown dress: soft stripes, behind her dark glasses, her eyes / were darker still. The floor was theirs. They did the jitterbug." (from "The Apiarist Dreams of the Queen"). Night is the work of a poet at the top of his game; possibly the best collection from the UK of the last quarter-century.
The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknatvich
Hawthorne Books, 2011
I don't normally read books straight through. I read them, instead, slowly and painfully. But I went cover-to-cover on The Chronology of Water. I really liked it. Yuknavitch's life reads as a weird mix of terrifying and wonderful, and her narration seems, to me, unromanticized and like a kind of conquering, almost. I could definitely see myself, in a theoretical future that may or may not happen, teaching this book to a class of English-lit undergrads, with them nodding and me referencing literary concepts and making arbitrary parallels to things while failing to communicate what I want to express the most, which is, "it's a beautiful book."
DOWNLOAD HELVETICA FOR FREE.COM by Steve Roggenbuck
I did a reading with Steve and other people when I was in New York this summer. I like Steve. He's kind of rebooting the literary playbook right now. He mostly ignores print content and uses web 2.0 strategies to communicate his ideas instead. He goes out of his way to make his work open-ended and participative. The end result is community-generated and frenetic and out-of-control sometimes, but also one of the most interesting, exciting uses of literature I've seen.
Suicide by Edouard Levé
Dalkey Archive Press, 2011
It kind of feels like I should have read this while in my mother's womb somehow. Levé commited suicide ten days after submitting the manuscript for this to a publisher, so the book reads as both mildly depressing and weirdly inspiring. I like the tone a lot, flat and generally unsentimental and seemingly avoiding overt moral or philosophical positions.
Open City by Teju Cole
Random House, 2011
It was hard for me to make it through Teju Cole's debut novel, Open City, without feeling tugged by recollections of the late W.G. Sebald's 2001 masterpiece, Austerlitz—a work which itself tears at readers with admonitions to remember. Austerlitz's title character is a brilliant but unsympathetic savant who gradually acquires an understanding of the past that privileges memory over minutiae—and with it, a more human appreciation for feeling over fact. But Cole's novel—as part of a wider cultural backlash against society's long love affair with memory, which I wrote about in the Winter issue of Maisonneuve—pushes back against the idea that memory makes us whole.
Julius, the protagonist, is not unlike an early Austerlitz, obsessing over everything from the history of urban slave markets to Take Back the Night. But Julius' conversion to the cult of memory never comes: on one peregrination through New York, he deliberately tries to avoid Ground Zero (dismissing it as "the obvious"); travelling to Belgium in search of a lost grandmother, he occupies himself, instead, with immigrant politics and a brief affair. When Julius' own past eventually catches up to him, he could hardly be less enthusiastic about acknowledging it. Readers have marvelled at how Cole's novel manages to hold their attention with little attempt at narrative cohesion beyond elliptical themes, but the sort of loopy procrastination in which Julius (and Open City) engages is more than just inventive structure. Most of us will always reject the unpleasantness of introspection when, instead, we can distance ourselves with the one thing that we—more like Julius than Austerlitz—still hold more sacred than memory: information.
Monoceros by Suzette Mayr
Coach House Books, 2011
Monoceros is a novel about a gay kid in Calgary who offs himself, narrated by the people left behind who are affected by his suicide. But it's far from sentimental or melodramatic; it's actually very funny and weird, in the best ways possible. Monoceros is beautifully written, using an interesting structure and a layered, imaginative narrative style. The characters are just awful and lovely in their awfulness. It's also full of honest-to-god nerds—not beautiful hipsters in nerd glasses, but sci-fi geeks, a closeted principal, an outcast obsessed with unicorns. Mayr is very innovative and takes a lot of risks, and for that reason her book stayed with me for a long time.
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber
Melville House Press, 2011
Debt: The First 5,000 Years begins by demolishing the Adam Smith-approved, capitalist-friendly fantasy that money evolved naturally out of barter. In fact, barter came after currency; prior to money, there were many different forms of exchange used for important occasions (weddings, funerals, etc.) and then, later, various systems of credit based, to a lesser or greater degree, on trust. Economists have the story completely backward, and the very backwardness of their story hides many more untruths. This is only Debt's opening salvo. Soon the anarchist-anthropologist (and sometimes Occupy Wall Street spokesman) David Graeber is effortlessly charging through five hundred pages—and five thousand years—of unbelievably erudite, readable and opinionated worldwide pre-history and history.
There are so many things in this book I either didn't know or had never even thought to consider that I genuinely feel I've been changed in the process of reading it. Graeber details countless fascinating facts: there is no money, as we know it, until a government officially sanctions it; the origins of coinage in the need to keep armies clothed and fed while travelling; kings first creating banks to raise money for foreign wars; the idea that a market economy and a capitalist economy are in fact opposites; the connections between conquest, slavery, capital and gambling; the reality of debt as both a fiscal and moral category—I could easily keep going with this list. I hope to be able to write coherently about this book someday soon, but I just finished it and am only beginning to think through the many ramifications and complexities that flow from its central arguments. It left me convinced that money is inexorably connected to war and slavery, but also convinced that there are other ways an economy might be organized. With humanity on the brink of so many interconnected disasters, it seems more and more like the time to re-think everything. This book is an invaluable tool toward that end. Everyone should read it.
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