Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, author of Mo' Meta Blues.
For the fifth year in a row, Maisonneuve asked contributors to send us a few words on the best books they read this year. The result is a highly incomplete portrait of reading in 2013.
Bull Head (Arsenal Pulp Press) by John Vigna
These things confound me. Best. Best when? Best book to read at night when I’m tired and my mind craves an easy slide into sleep or best book in the day, when I want something I hadn’t even known I was missing? For the latter, I reach for something like John Vigna’s Bull Head, a book of short stories about people living lives edged by violence and despair. Not easy stories by any stretch, but stories that take me outside my own boundaries, past fear and prejudice, stories that show me that the characters I prefer to slide past or avoid in life are, aside from a few external details, much the same as I am. “Short Haul” might be the saddest story I’ve ever read. It’s about a man so far lost from himself he looks in the mirror and doesn’t know who he sees. Vigna takes us into that mind, so we feel the man and his heart, beaten and raw, we feel his grace and his loss, and his doubt. It’s wrenching to be there. I know this is going to sound maudlin and sentimental, but it's for that rending feeling, for that new tear in my heart, that I loved this book. It’s no small thing to reach out from a page. Bravo, Bull Head.
—Jane Silcott. Her piece "Divine Language" appeared in Issue 47.
The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan (Knopf Canada) by Graeme Smith
“We lost the war in southern Afghanistan and it broke my heart,” writes Graeme Smith in the opening line of his memoir The Dogs Are Eating Them Now: Our War in Afghanistan. From that sentence onward, Smith recounts his three-and-a-half years covering the war for the Globe and Mail in a way that’s honest and personal. Early in the book, he writes about the sense of optimism amongst not only soldiers, but also journalists: “We took for granted that modern ideas about health, education, and agriculture could lift any society out of poverty.” But as tens of thousands of additional troops arrive, the mission’s purpose gets blurrier. Smith interviews some thirty Afghan detainees who had survived months of horrific torture. He watches Canadian troops use Taliban corpses as bait to lure insurgents, instead drawing wild dogs that ate them (the incident after which the book is titled). Smith writes about his own fallibility too, as a war reporter, and that’s maybe what makes this book so affecting. He writes with a sense of responsibility and frustration that’s hard not to be moved by (“I keep typing curses into the text, streams of invective that I go back and delete). In the end, he thanks his Afghani translators and fixers as the few heroes in his story. There’s no happy ending here, but it’s lingered with me ever since I put it down.
—Brad Badelt. His piece "Best Shot" appeared in Issue 49.
I was taught in journalism school that, after X number of interviews and so many hours of research, I get to make a claim about whatever I’m writing about. So it’s telling that, after four years of reporting for the Globe and Mail on the war in Afghanistan, Graeme Smith has no clear policy recommendations or succinct lessons about foreign intervention. The changing situation in Afghanistan is complex, and The Dogs Are Eating Them Now is valuable because it captures that. It parses the intricate relationships between the people, the government, the Taliban and the international forces (each as morally ambiguous as the next) while offering personal anecdotes and sharp observations of everyday life in the ravaged country. Smith’s initial hope—he admits to mistakenly predicting the end of the war and playing the optimist—turns into an overarching sense of disappointment. Amid the sadness, the sparse bits of humour come like punches to the gut. The book is fragmented, complicated and difficult—a lot like the war it’s about.
—Luc Rinaldi. His piece “Nerds in the Wood” appeared in Issue 47.
Five-Star Billionaire (Hamish Hamilton) by Tash Aw
Five-Star Billionaire consists of four narratives of Malaysian immigrants on the economic up and up in Shanghai—narratives that, instead of interweaving in a series of satisfying resolutions, bump against each other briefly in fly-by-night fashion before thwarting every single thing you realize you were rooting for. Aw is a master at crafting simultaneous intimacy and alienation. He details the precise and acute loneliness of city life, and the heightened importance tiny human interactions take on when you haven’t left your apartment, or talked to another soul, in weeks or months.
—Andrea Bennett. Her piece "No Choice" appeared in Issue 48.
The Flamethrowers: A Novel (Scribner) by Rachel Kushner
A confession: every December I devour end-of-year lists and then promptly ignore them. I almost never read hyped books, mainly because my stack of unread must-reads only continues to grow higher and there is not enough time in any life to keep up with the books pages. And there are so many authors I already love and want to read more of. But. But! The Flamethrowers changed that for me. Set in the mid-1970s and spanning across continents, The Flamethrowers eases you into and out of motorcycle races in Nevada, the New York City art scene and a revolutionary post-war Italy. With Kushner’s narrator, Reno, strapped to her Moto Valera bike, we speed along salt-flat time trials to New York lofts, on to a factory in Italy where Moto Valera tires are made. Kushner’s staggering amount of research makes this fictional tale read entirely true. Now her previous novel, Telex from Cuba, has found its way into my unread pile.
—Lynsdie Bourgon. Her piece "Nature vs. Numbers" appeared in Issue 50.
Mo' Meta Blues: The World According to Questlove (Grand Central Publishing) by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson and Ben Greenman
When The Roots’ drummer and renowned music aficionado Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson’s memoir Mo’ Meta Blues came out last June, it promised a peek behind the curtain of celebrity into life in the last great hip hop band. What it delivered was a very real, surprising and enjoyable account of a life-long love affair between a man and his music.
A self-professed music nerd, Questlove peppers his story with enough shop talk and theorizing to keep even the most rabid fanboy sated. It is nearly impossible to come away from this book without a dozen or so new bands on your “to listen” list. Reflections on the evolution of hip-hop share space with stories of his eight-year-old self seeing KISS in a hotel elevator and tales of partying with actor Tracy Morgan. Everything from his awkward encounters with musical idols (his meeting with Prince will make you cringe) to his early days of buying records with pocketed church money is recounted with a self-awareness and familiarity that is both intimate and humanizing. Mo’ Meta Blues is proof the liner notes to Questlove’s life are every bit as interesting as those in his albums, and just as worthy of your time.
—Andrew Guilbert. His piece "Cigar Notes" appeared in Issue 48.
Need Machine (Coach House Books) by Andrew Faulkner
Andrew Faulkner’s debut collection of poetry is the book I read this year I most wished I’d written myself. A fruitless wish for a lot of reasons, but mostly because nobody but Faulkner could have written poems this smart, funny and neurotic-but-fearless. His work is proof positive that dabbling in pop doesn’t make writing specious. These poems very casually hold a cerebral lens up to a totally-of-the-moment everyday and show us how warped and how funny it can be.
—Suzannah Showler. Her piece "On the Trail of Ignored Beasts" appeared in Issue 50.
Rock, Paper, Fire: The Best of Mountain and Wilderness Writing (Banff Centre Press) edited by Marni Jackson and Tony Whittome
During this year’s Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival, Katie Ives, editor of the glossy American mountain quarterly Alpinist, sat on a panel of outdoor and wilderness writers and spoke frankly about the lack of “anything happening” in American literature.
Yes, there is so little fiction to be found on the mountainside or on any adventure at all—these days, our great works are set in living rooms. Here is your antidote to that: Rock, Paper, Fire, a collection from the Banff Centre Press, features some of the best writing to come out of a decade’s worth of the Banff Centre’s three-week long Mountain and Wilderness Writing workshop. In this collection you’ll scale mountains, you’ll go hunting, you’ll steer a ship down the Pacific coast. You’ll also confront death and age and love and all that there is in between. Compiled and edited by the workshop’s crack mentorship team (Canadian freelance writer Marni Jackson and British book editor Tony Whittome), the book brings together great names in writing and exploration from around the world. It’s pages are full of bite-sized chunks of adventure, for when you need it.
Stay, Illusion (Knopf) by Lucie Brock-Broido
Although Brock-Broido’s books don’t appear very often, her orbit as writer seems to be fairly steady—a new collection every nine years or so. Her work is unapologetically ornate, and the name Brock-Broido could safely be called a metonym for embroidery. What Stygian carriage did you dismount? With what lithesome larks in tuxedos did you sit parleying Renaissance kerchiefs? Two, of the many possible, translations of what people mean when they say a writer’s diction is high or their language ornate. Brock-Broido’s collection is ornate and her register high, but the dislocation of Brock-Broido’s language almost always feels in service to a world that requires a dislocated language to disclose it. Whether this be the eye-lit dark of a factory farm, an inmate’s last meal, a housemaid kneeling by a doll-sized bed, or just one of the “ten thousand rags of music in your thoracic cavity”.
On the collection’s cover a white hart sits almost serenely in chains. It is a doorway fitting for the world behind it: a book that often writes towards the vulnerability in both the creaturely and the human. “I am of a fine mind to worship the visible world, the woo and pitch and sign of it,” writes Brock-Broido, and her often-exquisite and elegiac poems feel very much in service of this desire for remembrance and rapture. Brock-Broido’s collection locates peculiar ailments of the self; disorders, ailments, their tinctures and remedies. The poems here can feel strained and contorted as lyrics are cut along the edges of their own formal definitions—at their best, these feel like vital expressions, extensions of their subjects. Brock-Broido’s book is peculiar, and the wells she draws her language from come with notes and hints of unfamiliar earth. It’s one of the things I like best about the book, good for these winter months, a warm cup in your hand, but laced with rare minerals—a collection to stare out the window with, and let the world grow closer to its own strangeness.
—Chad Campbell. His poems "February Towers" appeared in Issue 49.
Taipei (Vintage Books) by Tao Lin
One of the issues plaguing modern literature over the past few years has been how to comfortably absorb the entirety of the internet—that thing that’s now absorbed us all—into a pre-internet medium without coming off awkwardly, or like you’re just brandishing “buzzwords” at a “target audience” in order to “grow your brand.”
Well, we can stop worrying. Tao Lin solved those problems this year, with Taipei, his seventh book, the type of novel that, when told it’s so deep into the internet that it can’t see the other side, glibly and repeatedly insists with a smile that “there is no other side,” a child intent on being right. In Taipei, as in real life for North American millennials, the world without the internet —without laptops, smartphones, Twitter—simply isn’t.
In the hands of a lesser writer, this kind of total 21st-century immersion would be grating and terrible to read. (Taipei, admittedly, is grating, in places.) But the sentences are so skilfully crafted, the style so mathematically precise, that concerns like “the characters aren’t likeable” are revealed for what they really are: compliments to Lin’s expert, photo-realistic renderings of the world around him.
For all the digital references that will date it, Taipei feels like it just might be the book that will outlive all the other books published in 2013, if only for how deftly it saw a way through to the other side.
—Alex Manley. His piece "Ne Me Quitte Pas" appeared in Issue 48.
In a tweet posted in March, Bret Easton Ellis wrote that Tao Lin’s latest book made him “the most interesting prose stylist of his generation.” Lin’s publishers at Vintage used that on the back cover when they finally released Taipei in June, but they omitted a major qualification: “which doesn’t mean that ‘Taipei’ isn’t a boring novel…” Ellis was right about that. In terms of sheer entertainment value, Taipei may rank as the worst of Lin’s novels. It lacks the control of Shoplifting from American Apparel and Richard Yates, and most of the lunacy of Eeeee Eee Eeee and the early poetry collections. With five pages to go, I put it down to run some errands, not taking it with me even though I would have many opportunities to finish it on the way, and that’s a telling endorsement. But there’s a reason that Lin’s interviewers and profilers often lapse into his infectious style, a reason why he has, it seems, hundreds of twee imitators online who make “liberal” use of quotation marks and ape his affectless prose. When I did finish the book I regretted not having brought it with me. If the plot sometimes feels lacking,Taipei has many other virtues, and his style alone is capable of creating surprise and delight. For days afterwards you’ll find yourself filtering reality through his lens, as if you were the hard-disk of his open Macbook, recording video in the crowded streets of downtown Taipei.
—André Babyn. His story "Tree Man" was the winner of Maisonneuve's 2013 Genre Fiction Contest.
Very Recent History (Harper) by Choire Sicha
Another year gone and another distressing number of new books in the world. They just keep coming, without any regard for if you're ready for them, or if you've read the old ones. I didn't actually get to The Flamethrowers—by the time I picked it up too many people had talked and written all over it and there's no way I'd manage to read all the essays and interviews and blog posts before I cracked Kushner's book open, so I haven't even tried. The same goes for Necessary Errors, Caleb Crain's first novel that seems, seen from the vantage point of someone who hasn't read it, all the right kinds of good. Because I read The Goldfinch I felt like I could be excused from the mania surrounding The Luminaries (I figure it's fair to choose to read only one 800-page book in any given year), even though I was interested in what little I knew about Catton's structure well before she swept up the awards season. And as much as I'm looking forward to finally, finally, getting to Lethem's Dissident Gardens, especially after a friendly bookseller whose taste I trust implicitly told me it's his best yet, I know it wont be until 2014.
Which, let's remember, is fine! It's weird to think that a book, which someone likely worked on for a few if not several years, has to be read and digested in the month, or year, of its release! Why do I let myself think that way? But one book I am especially glad to have read this year, the year it came out, is Choire Sicha's Very Recent History, which is a nonfiction book about some people living in New York City in 2009. I suppose I am pleased to have read this one while the title can still be considered accurate. Sicha, a cofounder of the popular and sensibly quirky website the Awl, has such a distinctive, playful but drop dead serious voice that it's hard not to have a fit of smart giggles just thinking about him. VRH follows a couple of young gay men as they navigate life, love, sex, and naturally, money in 2009, the year after the financial meltdown and the seventh year of a very, very wealthy man's mayoralty of the largest city in the United States. Sicha frames his reporting like some kind of alien entity, using asides that incredulously explain phenomena as diverse as air travel and pay period schedules, to belie his sense of wonder and disappointment at how this world works. Like Sicha's subjects, I'm slightly too young to have found anything even putatively resembling reality on The Real World, but it, the real world, is served up just right in Very Recent History—and Sicha's perplexed framing makes it, as any young person might've said back in 2009, perfectly trill.
—Emily Keeler. Her piece "Philosopher, Help Thyself" appeared in Issue 49.
what purpose did i serve in your life (Tyrant Books) by Marie Calloway
Given how much of it concerns subjects that would have pearl-clutchers clutching (sex, drugs, prostitution, BDSM, feminism), it shouldn’t be surprising that what purpose did i serve in your life is a raw book. It’s a document of war wounds. It’s an unflinching look. It fails in many places, and its missteps are easy to see. But its rawness is its strength. It’s about as adorned as a kitchen knife. It’s out for blood.
Of course, there are details that surround the book, things people like to talk about. Its size and shape. The cover—that face. The pseudonym. The birthdate (1990—yes, 1990). The ridiculous, onanistic Stephen Marche piece about it. The kerfuffle about a printer not wanting to print it, like 2013 was 1922.
At the end of the day, it’s about Calloway’s spare prose and operating-table look at how men and women manage to live with each other. The first time I read “Adrien Brody” I practically fell through the text. Read it, or “Thank U For Touching Me”—they’re both online—and see if you walk away untouched.