Sunday, December 28, 2003

A few of their favourite things
National Post
December 27, 2003
We asked some of Canada's best writers to tell us which book they enjoyed the most this year. Here's what they had to say.


J. M. Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello (Secker & Warburg/Random House) is more and less than a typical novel. Its unadorned but seductive prose draws you easily into complex ideas, even as it paints a sympathetic and complex character, and as usual with Coetzee, leaves you thinking, if not reeling.


I was most moved, this year, by The Romantic, by Barbara Gowdy (HarperCollins), a story of serious adolescent romance and tragedy told -- often with humour as well as pathos -- by a life-enhancing, unselfconscious narrator who, as the book progresses, the reader cannot help but come to love.


I would have to pick Distance, by Jack Hodgins (McClelland & Stewart) -- a glorious, funny, redemptive look at the losses of faith we all suffer as we grow older and our need to still try to hold on to what matters.


One of my favourite books of the year was Maneater, by Gigi Levangie Grazer (Simon and Schuster). It was certainly not the deepest book I have read this year, but it's been a long time since I laughed out loud as frequently (almost every page) as I did while reading that book. I brought it to Italy with me and it was the perfect travel read.


Barbara Gowdy's The Romantic (HarperCollins), because of the fine way it balances the folly and beauty of the topic. And Jose Saramago's The Cave (Harvest Books), which will haunt anyone who enters its pages because of its stunning depiction of what happens when the corporate world and government become one and the same, and for its extraordinary portrayal of the quality of one family's love.


My discovery of the year was John Bemrose's The Island Walkers (McClelland & Stewart), a work written with such assurance and felicity that it is hard to believe it is a first novel.


W.G. Sebald's On the Natural History of Destruction (Knopf). Sebald is an archivist of dispossession, all his work is elegiac, deeply provocative, humane, haunted by history and by all the grief of the last century. And Alberto Manguel's Stevenson Under the Palm Trees (Thomas Allen) -- also concerned with wounds of dispossession, but very different -- a novella of beautiful restraint and insight.


My favourite book of the year was Paris 1919, by Margaret MacMillan (Random House). I'm fascinated by the period.


Michael Redhill's book of stories, Fidelity (Anchor Canada), is, without a doubt, the best book I've read this year. These stories resonate. They are rich and complicated and funny, but most of all, they are wise. When you read Fidelity, you feel like you're reading something great. Something that will stick to your guts. Something that will make a difference in your life. Something that will tell you a little bit more about humans ... and frogs and gambling and ex-husbands and old university roommates and sperm banks and ...


Jim Harrison's Off to the Side (Atlantic Monthly Press), a memoir. Brilliant, brilliantly funny and profoundly sad, this poet, novelist and food critic is a compassionate iconoclast with world-class appetites. His style is disarmingly casual and you are made to feel intimate with his engrossing life.


Ignorance, by Milan Kundera (HarperCollins). A profound reflection on exile. Do you have the right to find a new life? For the people who stayed, you may become a traitor even if it took courage to leave, even if the whole country wanted to leave.You did it, they did not. And now they judge you.


My choice is my friend Alberto Manguel's novella, Stevenson under the Palm Trees (Thomas Allen), about the last days of Robert Louis Stevenson in Tahiti. It's an elegy, spare and haunting, on the subject of the creative demons that drive a writer, with the eerie suggestion that the emotional boundaries between life and art are more blurred than we think. It's always inspiring to see a colleague do masterful work and Manguel's book is proof that the novella form can do the novel's job and then some.


Sitting Practice, by Caroline Adderson (Thomas Allen), is about tragedy and how we deal with it -- in this case, a young woman thrust into a wheelchair by a car accident weeks into her marriage. What no one would ever guess is what a richly humorous, sexy and emotionally rewarding novel Adderson finds in this material. And Twenty-Six, by Leo McKay Jr. (McClelland & Stewart), is about a coal mine disaster in a Nova Scotia town, the 1992 Westray mine disaster in thin disguise. McKay does a compelling job of mapping the calamity not just after, but before the methane and coal dust ignite.


My pick is John Updike: The Early Stories, 1953-1975 (Knopf). I cut my literary teeth on Updike and his early work is still the best. A wonderful collection that includes "Pigeon Feathers", "A&P" and "Lifeguard." Updike writes about women and God and sex and death and he succeeds in giving "the mundane its beautiful due." The introduction to the collection is worth the price.


The Cave by Jose Saramago (Harvest Books) is unquestionably the best book I have read in the last year. It may be one of the best books I have ever read. Nothing could be more timely -- nor more timeless. And it is suffused with love. We need it.


My choice is La Heronniere, by Lise Tremblay (Lemeac Editeur). It's a magnificent collection of news, moving and funny, describing the life of a little island in Quebec. Pertinent, caustic, surprising.


A character in my next novel is thinking a lot about God, so I read John Horgan's Rational Mysticism (Houghton Mifflin). Horgan's search for mystical reality encompasses meditating nuns, psychedelic gurus and scientists measuring where in the brain visions arise. While the religious impulse is near-universal and as varied as we are, whether God is delusion or the truth behind illusion remains unanswered. We might be better off exercising our free will and embracing the wonder of this world, which is as mystical and extraordinary as anyone could possibly desire.


I felt deep respect for T.J. Binyon's biography of Pushkin (HarperCollins). The book is all that biography should be: restrained, fairly impartial, told by a writer with a fine eye for an anecdote, and above all, restorative -- in the sense that it brings a human being (a peculiar one) into closer view and drags his time and place back with him. I envied, while reading Pushkin: A Biography, all those who can read Pushkin in the original, and all who know St. Petersburg.


My favourite book this year was Cosmopolis, by Don Delillo (Simon & Schuster). I loved it because it was magical, unpredictable and desperate and had the best, funniest, sexiest sex scene -- without any actual touching -- that I've ever read, ever, ever, ever.


My choice is Tobias Wolff's Old School (Knopf). It's about a prep-school boy and the trouble he gets into so that he can meet Ernest Hemingway. A contemporary master of the short story, Wolff has written a gem of a novel about truth and deception in life and letters.


Chester Brown's graphic novel Louis Riel: A Comic-Strip Biography (Drawn and Quarterly) is an overwhelming, eye-boggling achievement, my favourite book of the year. What you have here is Brown at the height of his abilities as an artist, his handling of line and composition is absolutely beautiful, and he's made a fascinating and intelligent portrait of one of Canada's most controversial historical figures. To me, this isn't just the best book of the year, it's one of the most important graphic novels ever published.


I've always heard that Charles Ritchie's diaries (McClelland & Stewart) are wonderful and this year, I finally got around to reading his account of his boyhood in Nova Scotia, his time in England at Oxford and then again in London as a young Canadian diplomat during the Second World War. And, yes, the diaries are wonderful -- witty, perceptive and quite moving. My other best book of the year is quite different -- Simon Sebag-Montefiore's Stalin (McArthur & Co.). It uses the new material that has come out since 1989 to paint a grisly picture of the tyrant and his court of sycophants and murderers. A compelling and deeply depressing read.


My favourite book of the year is a book of poems called Persuasion for a Mathematician, by Joanne Page (Pedlar Press). It's a book with fabulous reach and the poems argue life or death with passion, wisdom, and honesty.


My favourite book of the year was Waiting for an Angel, by Helon Habila (Norton). Set in 1990s Nigeria, this memorable first novel by a young Nigerian writer now resident in England tells the story of a journalist and sometime novelist who gets caught up in a demonstration and jailed by the dictatorship. A vivid, compelling portrait of one man's resistance of oppression, but beyond the politics and serious theme it is marked by sparkling, often funny dialogue and precise character portraits.


Against Love: a Polemic, by Laura Kipnis (Pantheon). I loved this skinny diatribe against the pat notions of everyday monogamy and the modern relationship. It was funny, smart and shocking. And unfortunately, probably true.

© National Post 2003

National Post

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