Category: Books

2014 reading list roundup

January 1, 2015

The best fiction and non-fiction books I read in 2014 were:

  • Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel.
    As good as the even denser Wolf Hall, the second in a planned series of three novels on the life of Thomas Cromwell was even more enjoyable for me than the first, probably because I’d gotten intimately familiar with Mantel’s cadence. This is a huge story told via the familiar in life, in a way that makes one wonder at the author’s virtuosity. I hate using that word. But it’s true here.
  • Can’t and Won’t, by Lydia Davis.
    I love Lydia Davis’ short short stories. This book is as strange as her oeuvre, but somehow it feels like much more is happening within the confines of her tiny stories than the number of words would seem to allow. This collection contains a few of the author’s translations of snippets from Flaubert; her choices reflect the themes of her own work perfectly. This collection is funny, sweet, and sometimes very sad.
  • Casebook, by Mona Simpson.
    I originally had difficulty getting into Casebook, and by page sixty or so I almost gave up. But something happened, and I’m not sure what. The story suddenly seeped into me. California seemed immediate and familiar, and the lives of Miles and his friend Hector, watching surreptitiously as Miles’ family falls apart, became very important to me. When the book ended, I cried, in spite of the emotional begging of the last scene. I loved this book, and it made it to my “five star shelf”, beside Stewart O’Nan, Annabel Lyon, and Herman Koch, among others.
  • Cicero, by Anthony Everitt.
    Anothony Everitt’s life of Cicero makes the orator very real and very human for a general readership. There is an introduction to late Republic Rome that is vital for anyone interested with no prior knowledge of the subject. The necessary history of the Republic vis-a-vis Julius Caesar is enlightening. This biography made me pick up Everitt’s biographies of Augustus and Hadrian.
  • In Paradise, by Peter Mathiessen.
    A novel of a group of people at retreat in Auschwitz in 1996. It seems to me this kind of thing could get maudlin and overdone very quickly. This is not such a book. It’s beautiful and sad and necessary. One of my favourites for the year.
  • Irregular Verbs, by Matthew Johnson.
    Absolutely one of my favourites for the year. What a wonderful and strange collection of stories. Here is fantasy, science fiction, and magic realism, imagined history as realized as Tolkien’s, stories from far countries that exist and that don’t. I can’t believe one person can write in as many varied ways as Matthew Johnson can. These aren’t genre stories, either. These stories are to make you laugh, to make you sad, to make you think about what the universe could be like, what we could be like. This was better than Hellgoing for me, which I also read in 2014 and which won the Giller in 2013. These stories were published elsewhere (I remember reading The Coldest War in Analog magazine years ago), but I want more in book form. What must a Matthew Johnson novel be like?
  • Summer House with Swimming Pool, by Herman Koch.
    This is another book featuring Herman Koch’s speciality: the aloof and slightly disturbed narrator. This time, he is a doctor with an uncouth boor of an actor for a friend (who coincidentally plays Augustus on TV), whose death he seems implicated in at the novel’s start. In flashback, the respective families vacation at the titular house, and the novel is replete with bad people doing nasty things. But there is a turning loveliness inside it all, revealed in unlikely ways: Marc is silently enraged by his wife telling him how to drive, but also by the plight of an unattended donkey left in the sun at a petting zoo. The humour is of course searing and hilarious, also a Koch specialty. I have read that some consider this book misogynistic. This is a gross error on the part of those readers, who are likely thrown by the overall nastiness of the first-person narrator, and who have been taken in by the very device used to make the story worthwhile. In fact, this book and this story are the opposite of misogynistic. This is better than The Dinner.

In 2014, I abandoned the following books, not able to finish them because life is too short to read what you do not love:

  • The Bear, by Claire Cameron.
    I almost made it, but it clanged one too many times and I gave up.
  • The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donohue.
  • Hair Side, Flesh Side, by Helen Marshall.
    Much had been made of this collection of nouveau horror realism, and I looked forward to it. I didn’t make it much past a third of the way in. In books, writing is very important. This book had words in it and they made stories. Of the writing I cannot say. This is the exact opposite of North American Lake Monsters by Nathan Ballingrud, which is a collection of very creepy and believable nouveau horror written beautifully.
  • Texas, by Claudio Gaudio. This was recommended to me via Twitter by an editor at Descant Magazine because I mentioned I loved David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress. Though I was tactful on Twitter and thankful for the recommendation, there is no comparison to be made. This book strives for the kind of topical stream-of-consciousness import of Hermann Broch (and Ghalib Islam?), but becomes repetitive and impenetrable. Made it more than half way, but just couldn’t do it.

Other books I read in 2014 and which I liked were:

  • 10% Happier, by Dan Harris.
    Nightline personality Dan Harris had an on-air meltdown after flirting with crack and living off the highs of his career. He turned to vipassana meditation (called “insight mediation”), and changed his life.
  • All Saints, by K. D. Miller.
    I reviewed this book here.
  • Brain on Fire, by Susannah Cahalan.
  • Drunk Mom, by Jowita Bydlowska.
  • Free WillLying, The Moral Landscape, and Waking Up, all four by Sam Harris (who turns out to be a friend of the aforementioned Dan Harris, and who has cited 10% Happier as the best introduction to Waking Up).
  • Hellgoing, by Lynn Coady.

Other books I read include The Faithful Executioner, by Joel F. Harrington (which seemed too padded to recommend), Mr. Mercedes and Revival by Stephen King, both good King staples but, after all, junk food for the brain, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman (which was good but ultimately frustrated me to no end), and The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

My least favourite book read in 2014 was Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands, by Chris Bohjalian.

My favourite non-fiction book read in 2014 was Cicero, by Anthony Everitt. My favourite fiction book read in 2014 was Casebook, by Mona Simpson, followed very closely by Matthew Johnson’s collection Irregular Verbs.

All Saints, by K. D. Miller

November 4, 2014

“It’s my fix,” K. D. Miller said of writing. One or two of the other writers in the venue, all reading from their Rogers Writer’s Trust 2014 shortlisted books, had commented wryly on how personally difficult and possibly pointless writing was. Miller said she couldn’t live without it, and that, for her, a day without writing was itself difficult.

“All Saints” is evidence of a writer who must write, not merely one who can. It’s a book of ten short stories centred, sometimes tangentially, around the fictional All Saints Anglican church in Toronto. The stories flow from one to the next naturally, with threads hinted at in one appearing fully formed in another, irrespective of the order of presentation in the book. This almost gives the work the sense of a novel, though the studies contained in some of the stories would not have worked in that form.

The best stories are strongly linked. Whereas the most recurrent character is that of Simon, the new rector of the parish with a tragic personal history who appears to teeter on the brink of agnosticism, my favourite stories involve Emily. We follow her from the early 1970s in “What They Have”, where she’s a hippie in a disorganized relationship with her lover and his friends, to more recently in “Return”. Here, a stroke has felled her, and a strangely reactive totem horse lingers on the periphery of her awareness, invading the course reality of the hospital room to which she’s confined. Emily is a lovely character, manifold and inward-looking, and for me invokes an odd nostalgia and sympathy I could not find for any other. As a special treat, adding a weird depth to both her and the collection itself, she is hinted at as the author of the very first story in the book.

At the Writer’s Trust reading, Miller said that some of the stories had been brewing for twenty years or more. This would seem to make the link to All Saints tenuous, and it is in “Kim’s Game”, the story of an elderly odd-man-out whose utter humiliation at a writing retreat threatens to turn pathos into unintentional parody. The link is also easy to forget in “Magnificat”, where a sadomasochistic relationship is observed from both near and far at the same moment. The life of Alice Vipond in two other of the stories, one of which concludes the book, might also have come about separately from the concept of the church. No matter, as the collection overall is strong, and the locus of All Saints an apt anchor, itself a creaking, failing character.

At the end of the reading, while getting my copy signed, I asked K. D. Miller if the stories could possibly be autobiographical. I thought this was reasonable: most characters are middle aged and beyond, and the evocation of other, earlier times was concrete and well drawn. Although I later had a George Costanza moment–maybe referencing autobiography in a work that included S&M and shit-smeared writers was not the most poignant use of the few seconds I had with her–I thought the question was more or less fair. She paused slightly, and looked at me above the rim of her glasses while sliding the signed book back to me across the table. “I’ll let you decide that,” she said.

Fair enough.