Here are the best books I read this year. As usual, I didn’t read any books written this year (although the Fiddler is a Good Woman is close). It’s important to have distance / to not be relevant. This was a much luckier year for reading good books than last year. Unlike last year, there are a bunch of books I read that I really really liked that I didn’t include here.
Poulet aux Prunes (Chicken and Plums, Marjane Satrapi, 2004) I was visiting C. when I bought this book, and he pointed out: graphic novels, compared to other books, have a really extreme ratio between the time the author spent making the work and the time the reader spends reading it. One potential advantage of this is that it can give the graphic novel a satisfying feeling of world depth, since the writer has inhabited this world for so long compared to your time in it. This is very true of Chicken with Plums. But it also means that you get a proportionally small glimpse, and for Chicken with Plums it’s a shame because I wanted more of that world. And I know I could go and buy Persepolis and Satrapi’s other work. But I wanted some time to wallow in this specific story. In a tiny number of pages, I got to know the petulant and inspired Nasser Ali. A person whose selfishness isn’t excused by his genius. A person whose heartbreak doesn’t explain his failures. Yet a person whose genius isn’t erased by his selfishness. And a person whose heartbreak is real and really changes his life. And the surrounding cast of characters is ridiculous, and heartfelt and by turns surprising like all good family stories. The story is tragic, but it’s also funny, warm, and takes unexpected turns. This is a really great book.
Жизнь — это театр (Life is Theatre, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya, 70’s-00’s) – extremely pithy and piercing flash fiction. The narrative voice is often cutting and merciless. But there are moments of grace that have enough sincerity that they separate Petrushevskaya from other talented, merciless writers whom I often can’t read just because their hatred for humanity is too bleak (like, say, Flannery O’Connor). Petrushevskaya has a very idiosyncratic set of concerns: teenage pregnancy, unsuccessful professional musicians, beach holidays, alcoholism, romances with huge age gaps. I don’t know why she thinks these are the most important themes to come back to. But then, it’s not like childhood reminiscences of divorced middle aged women from the Ottawa Valley is the world’s most exciting subject either, but every Alice Munro story with that subject is absolutely captivating. At some point, when you’re writing about human nature, the reader’s initial interest in the content specifics is not that important.
Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 2013) this is one of those satisfying melodrama books, centred on a broken off romance between two Nigerian teenagers who then become adults, Ifemelu and Obinze. It’s broken off in part because Ifemelu is in America for a large portion of the book’s plot (she’s the titular Americanah). It’s marketed as being about race, but the race stuff in it is mostly things we’ve heard before and internalized, at least if we’ve spent time as “liberals in the US”. So I didn’t find it super worth it for that alone. But it works as exploration of immigration and of return, and also just as a bunch of characters interacting because Adichie has a gift for writing conversation. By which I mean not just the dialogue of what’s said, but the reactions to what’s said. So rather than each dialogue moving each relationship in one specific direction, you feel the push and pull of all the small and large ups and downs and sidewayses that emotions undergo in conversation. And through it all, it remains a feel-good book because you just know Ifemelu and Obinze will end up together, even if you don’t know how, or whether it will be a good idea.
Coming Through Slaughter (Michael Ondaatje, 1976) Appropriately for a book written by a poet, the greatest strength of this book is the descriptions and choices of words. Appropriately for a book about a jazz musician, the narration changes rhythm, scatters, repeats. The best thing for me is that while being poetic and even elegiac at times, the book is the farthest thing from bloodless. The best passages are raw, visceral, weighted with sex and blood.
Impro (Keith Johnstone, 1979) I think/fear that this might be one of those books annoying tech CEOs who think they are visionaries make everyone in their startup read, and, not gonna lie, I briefly considered moving to the Bay Area, becoming an annoying tech CEO, and coming up with an idea for a startup just to do that.
I can’t think of another book that’s changed how I think about important things so much. It’s changed how I think about teaching (my now once again job), about writing (my main hobby), about enlightenment, and about all human interactions (kind of important things!). And it’s also given me lots of things to try, and lots of games I’m eager to play with others.
The Complete Short Stories (Natalia Ginzburg, 1940’s?) It feels like Natalia Ginzburg shows up in these reviews every year, so I should probably keep it short: you already know the deal. But I won’t. The magic is in the narration. Time dilates and contracts. If someone’s life is a paragraph, several decades can be one sentence. What she wore out to a party once, or how she cooked some meal that’s not even relevant, can be another. Moments of true joy and grief flicker by and are swept away, and behind it all, the background river of the quiet desperation of life.
In terms of analyzing personal actions, people often talk about societal expectations, and how individuals internalize them. But then sometimes we turn around and act like being aware that this is what’s happening is enough to cure it. That people can just be enlightened or shamed out of feeling this way. The people in this collection often find that their expectations of masculinity or femininity, marriage or family don’t resemble at all how they feel. And this makes them suffer. But the idea that telling them “oh, you’re just internalizing bad societal norms! Stop feeling this way, it’s bad!” could somehow help is just the saddest fucking joke in the world.
The Fiddler is a Good Woman (Geoff Berner, 2017) Sometimes books may be better than they were intended, and I think Geoff Berner’s witty “oral history” about a folk violinist from the Island who’s gone missing and whose life is being reconstructed by her former lovers and musical collaborators is one of those.
I loved this novel for many different reasons. One is that it’s always heartwarming to have your cultural and geographic touchstones referenced lovingly (Fernwood! The old Sugar Refinery! The Railway Club! Folkfest! Hating on London, Ontario!) This is especially so in a place like Vancouver where so many unfairly dismiss it as basically lacking in culture entirely. Another is that I always try to expand the list of people who’ve both written a song I like and a novel I like, and I’m happy to report I’ve finally succeeded. But the biggest is that it’s a very keenly observed, loving, wry commentary on white left-coast leftist culture. It’s where everyone is mostly on the same page, but they all judge each other by every single person’s assumption of absolute impregnable righteousness of their exact ideology and evaluation of the personal worth of other people mostly by how closely they hew to that specific ideology. And the thing is, these are mostly really great people, but they are dismissive and contemptuous of each other, and of people who aren’t each other (i.e., normies) even more so to an incredible extent.
And Berner sometimes seems to have the same kind of viewpoint in his political writing, but in this novel, it’s presented both with love, and with an understanding of how ultimately ridiculous it can be, so it’s subtle and kind and wonderful.
The Golden Gate (by Vikram Seth) is
A novel that’s made out in verse
Which you can tell right from the preface.
“Good taste” tells us to be averse
To use of over-clever tricks
By which (we’re told) some writers fix
The lack of anything worth saying
But frankly, would you rather read
Another stern and serious screed
Or rhymes, where reading feels like playing?
In that respect I must be frank
I’d love it—even if it stank
One’s Russian lit prof’s pleas and begging
Are things most easily withstood
And so, most do not read Onegin.
Which is a shame: I think they should!
In Pushkin’s verses, he opines
On women, wit, and words and wines
No topic is left undebated
As if what he set out to do
Is give us his entire worldview.
Seth is not as opinionated
Allusions plenty, He’s less game
To share his judgments—that’s a shame
But asking how Seth’s novel measures
up to great Russian literature
Is not to denigrate its pleasures
I recommend it to be sure.
This is the first novel that I
Have read where a main hero’s bi
There’s Liz and Janet, two young ladies
And John, who’s loved by all the three
Despite his douchey bigotry
That’s how San Fran was in the eighties
Which is another cause for cheers:
Some things get better with the years.