Tuesday, January 06, 2015

2014 reading list

These are not the best books of 2014; most were not even released in 2014. These are the books I read in the past 12 months; these reviews were written recently, not immediately after reading. What follows is the order in which I read them (or abandoned them), although if you insist on some kind of ranking, these are the five books I would buy for you right now and give as belated gifts if I could:

Joseph Boyden – The Orenda
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah
Sean Michaels – Us Conductors
Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Angel’s Game
Nile Rodgers – Le Freak

So here we go:

Carlos Ruiz Zafon – The Angel’s Game. The second in a trilogy of bibliophilic ghost stories situated in post-Civil War Spain, this is the rare thriller that is also beautifully written, appealing to both the adventure-loving boy in me and the grown man who loves language and psychological studies of the scars of war. My only complaint is that Zafon lays on the gothic gloom a bit thick in spots—not that I didn’t love every minute of it.

Herman Koch – The Dinner. A Dutch morality tale about two fathers coming to terms with a horrific act performed by their sons on the same night that their own relationship and one of their marriages are all in peril—it’s all set in 24 hours, which makes it a tense read. Cate Blanchett is directing a film adaptation due this year.

Paul Wells – The Longer I’m Prime Minister. Know thy enemy. It’s all well and good to think Stephen Harper is a fascist who is intent on destroying everything that makes Canada great—which of course is more or less true. But how the hell does he do it and how did he convince Canada to go along with him? Paul Wells, who had already written a book documenting the rise of the modern Conservative party, doesn’t just walk us through headlines of the last eight years—that would be too easy, and a retread of Wells’s work at Maclean’s. Instead, he tells us how Harper’s mind works. And it’s to his credit as a writer that this book could—and does—appeal to both Conservatives and Harper-haters alike. It’s obvious that some—perhaps even many—of Harper’s moves have infuriated Wells, but Wells is smart enough to know what Harper’s long game is. Now we do too. There’s an election in 2015. We might be stuck with this guy; this book tells us why. Disclosure: My day job involves copy-editing Wells (and all other writers) at Maclean’s. You’d think I’d be sick of him. But this book just made me admire Wells more.

Greg Kot – I’ll Take You There. This is ostensibly a biography of Mavis Staples, the star of her family band who’s had a long-overdue comeback thanks to her last three solo records. But the real story here is that of her father, Pops Staples, patriarch of the Staple Singers, a man whose life embodies African-American history of the 20th century, for whom slavery was not a distant family memory, who grew up in the South and migrated to Chicago, and who marched alongside Martin Luther King. Greg Kot is one of my favourite music writers, for both his musical insight and his storytelling ability—which serves him well with a tale like this. My review for Maclean’s is here.

Robertson Davies – World of Wonders. After overcoming skepticism and a bad first impression to fully enjoy Fifth Business a few years back, and then being thoroughly bored by its sequel, The Manticore, this final book in the Deptford Trilogy is magical (literally), funny and immensely satisfying.

Joseph Boyden – The Orenda. Where to start? It’s a gripping read, first and foremost, regardless of subject matter or historical import. Boyden is a fantastic writer—but we knew that already. The Orenda is also a bloody read, a profoundly uncomfortable one. The history of our country is gory—and not just on the part of the settlers, whom much of our modern white guilt is quick to blame for everything. The Aboriginal populations had their own take on torture, for example, that would make even today’s CIA devils blush. And yet part of Boyden’s brilliance is making even that horror seem like a less callous way of treating prisoners than indiscriminate slaughter. The Orenda challenges every perception you had of Canada’s early history, posing as many questions as it answers. One I’ve always wondered: why on Earth did tribes put up with the missionaries who wanted to embed themselves in local communities? What was in it for the Natives? Boyden brilliantly dissects that dynamic with his portrayal of a priest with good intentions and bad directions, and the community that humours him. The author’s empathy is astounding, allowing us to fully experience both sides of the strange and twisted new relationship between Europeans and inhabitants of the so-called New World. It’s also incredibly informative from a purely anthropological standpoint: agriculture, diplomacy and mere survival. The Orenda surpassed all expectations. (And now I’ve just inflated yours—so please ignore everything I just said and go read it if you haven’t already.)

Rosanne Cash – Composed. Inspired by her incredible 2014 album The River and the Thread, I went back to her 2012 memoir to find out more about this fascinating woman. She’s frank and funny and incredibly insightful: the more emotionally charged passages frequently had me tearing up. She writes about growing up with her infamous father, being raised by the woman he left for June Carter, her extended family, her marriage to Rodney Crowell, her search for her own identity and path, an avalanche of loss in the early 2000s, and brain surgery in 2007. Like her songs, there are no extraneous details; this is a slim but satisfying volume.

Robyn Doolittle – Crazy Town. As someone who figured he knew most of this story already by following Doolittle’s work in the Toronto Star, I still found her book to be an exciting read. It’s not unlike All the President’s Men, in terms of providing the reader with the day-to-day drama of uncovering one of the great political scandals in modern Canadian history—and doing so as a young reporter not yet 30 years old. Doolittle is surprisingly fair when it comes to Rob Ford’s family history and explaining the context that created the so-called Ford Nation. Considering the Fords’ outspoken opinion of her, she’d have every right to take it personally and come back at them swinging. Instead, she sticks to the story at hand. The most moving part, for me, was her account of the time after the crack-video story broke but before the police confirmed the existence of the video, when polls showed that almost 50 per cent of Torontonians thought the Star was making the whole thing up—which seems insane, but speaks to our collective suspicion of all institutions, our belief in “truthiness.” It took a toll on Doolittle, and she writes candidly—and understandably—about her frustration at being called a liar on a daily basis. My only complaint: Doolittle is a great reporter (obviously), but not necessarily a master crafter of prose. Crazy Town is written by a newspaper writer, not a magazine writer, and it shows. But what do I know? I read musicians’ autobiographies.

Graeme Smith – The Dogs are Eating Them Now. This is a former Globe and Mail reporter’s account of his years covering Afghanistan. It’s predictably infuriating and beautiful, written by a man who fell in love with the country so much that he quit his job and stayed in the country to work directly on improving the fate of the failed state. What’s most interesting, especially in the wake of the recent revelations—or rather, confirmations—about CIA torture, is Smith’s account of Canadians’ complicity in turning over prisoners to the Americans. Remember when Stephen Harper prorogued Parliament so he could shove that messy little detail under the carpet? Well, it worked, because most people who haven’t read Smith’s book will probably have forgotten that ever happened.

Eric Schlosser – Command and Control. The Cold War is over, but there are still tens of thousands of nuclear warheads out there—and some of them are in incredibly unsafe places. But hey, nothing’s happened in the last 25 years, so everything’s going to be okay, right? That’s the odd takeaway one gets from Schlosser’s investigation into decades of nuclear-safety mishaps, where birds and even the moon were mistaken for enemy nukes, almost launching a full-on global thermonuclear war. Then there are the bombs that fell off planes on the runway by accident, and how a dropped screwdriver almost caused a complete meltdown. It’s enough to make you believe that there is a God, because based on this evidence, the human race is more than stupid enough to annihilate itself and it’s a miracle it hasn’t happened already. Schlosser is best known for Fast Food Nation, a book that changed the eating habits of myself and millions of others. This is nowhere near as strong a book; it’s much less economical, for starters, and the editing is sloppy. And what should be a white-knuckle horror story about a Titan missile exploding in Arkansas is parsed out in parts throughout the book, in between a litany of other gaffes from Cold War history. And surely someone could have tightened this up. And for some reason, every second sentence starts with the word “and.”

Christopher R. Weingarten – It Takes a Nation of Millions
I’ve loved Public Enemy for about 25 years; I’ve read Chuck D’s autobiography and hip-hop history books, but not until now did I fully appreciate the genius that went into such a seminal album. I had no idea, for example, that the Bomb Squad all loaded up their samplers, sat around with DJ Terminator X, and played these tracks live in the studio, in order to maintain a human feel and intentional sloppiness. WTF? Who does that?! No wonder the glorious mess that Public Enemy was in its prime still sounds so vital. Weingarten also goes deep into all the musical and political icons that informed Chuck’s rhymes; among other things, this book will make you seek out the classic ’70s concert film Wattstax (pssst: the whole thing is on YouTube). But it’s the musical deconstruction where Weingarten excels, and it’s there that he proves PE’s true brilliance.

Nancy Lee – The Age (abandoned). There were kernels of a good story here, but I didn’t feel any narrative pull and I had trouble remembering who any of the auxiliary characters were. I’d read Lee’s short stories years ago and enjoyed them, but put this own down after about 100 pages.

John Strausbaugh – The Village (still in progress). This is a history of Greenwich Village, from when it was a rural retreat for rich downtowners in the 18th century through the myriad characters of its long, bohemian history right up to its current gentrification. I’ve only read the first quarter of this book (the part without any famous historical names I’d recognize), but it’s already a fascinating and well-written social history of a neighbourhood that came to define much of American culture. I’m sure it gets even better from where I left off; I hope to pick it up again soon.

Rachel Kushner – The Flamethrowers (abandoned). This woman is a beautiful writer who composes sentences that stop you cold, but I quickly lost her plot—something to do with motorcycles, Italian anarachists and the art world, if I recall—and this was too dense to be a summer read. I’d happily read short stories of hers, but this book didn’t do it for me.

Nile Rodgers – Le Freak. What’s the sign of a good autobiography? When the best parts of the book take place before the person even gets famous. Nile Rodgers grew up in a junkie household—Thelonious Monk, among others, would come over to cop—and almost burned his family’s apartment down once. (His punishment? “Nile, you’ve got to be cool.”) He was raised by his mother and Jewish stepfather; his birth father he’d only run into occasionally on the street—and he once talked a suicidal man off a ledge after encountering a crowd on the street, after realizing the man they were all staring at above was his father. When he becomes a musician, he gets a job in the Apollo Theatre house band, and then the Sesame Street touring band. He forms Chic with Bernard “Nard” Edwards, sells millions of records, and goes on to produce the likes of Diana Ross, Madonna and Duran Duran. He becomes an addict himself. He finally kicks coke after listening to a live set that he thought was transcendent at the time; hearing it later while sober, he realizes it was the worst performance of his life. Rodgers’s tale is laugh-out-loud funny and juicy as well as tragic. This book came out even before his 2013 comeback with Daft Punk, so the happy ending keeps getting better.

Dave Eggers – The Circle. Can we start teaching this to Grade 9 students, alongside 1984? Eggers has written a not-so-sci-fi novel about a company that combines Google, Facebook, Amazon and Instagram (wait a minute, isn’t that AliBaba?) and creates a society that celebrates complicity in complete surveillance. Tech utopians will dismiss Eggers as a cranky Luddite—but so what? He raises serious questions about what it means when we feel the need to broadcast to the world our every move and thought, and what we lose in terms of real human connection. One senses that he toned his writing down a bit to appeal to a YA crowd, and surely most readers could see the twist coming from miles away. But it’s still a fascinating and provocative book; Eggers is raising questions here that are almost heretical in modern discourse. And hopefully those under 40—indeed, under 20—will enjoy it at least as much as the old grumps who gave this to them for Christmas.

Michael Lewis – Flash Boys. I loved Lewis’s The Big Short, as well as the follow-up anthology of Vanity Fair pieces, all of which spun ridiculous-but-true tales of how and why the world economy collapsed in 2008. This is another financial book about a nobody who saw a hole in the stock market and tried to fix it ethically. It’s a great story, but it doesn’t need to be a long one: this would have made a much better extended magazine story than a full-length book.

Charles Frazier – Cold Mountain (abandoned). I went to North Carolina this summer to celebrate an anniversary, and wanted something regional to read while I was there. This Civil War tale, a bestseller in 1997 that was made into a 2003 film, did the trick—while I was there, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Once I got home, however, I lost interest completely.

Keith Sharp – Music Express. You know I’m a music-book masochist and a CanCon sucker when I will willingly read a memoir by the former publisher of a Canadian music magazine in the 1980s—especially one as poorly written as this one. I grew up reading Music Express (the magazine); it was the first music mag to which I had a subscription, and it was a proud champion of artists from this country, an idea that still seemed weird at the time. Now, after years in the biz myself, I can see that its coverage was heavily informed by cronyism and—not payola exactly, but let’s say a very close relationship between the sales and editorial departments. Whatever—if you accept Sharp, the magazine’s editor and publisher, as an extremely unreliable narrator, his book can be rather amusing. It’s fun, albeit maddening, to spot the typos and mistakes. But I’ll say this about Sharp: he was a dreamer, and he made something crazy happen.

Tom Rachman – The Rise and Fall of Great Powers (abandoned). I loved, loved, loved Rachman’s debut, The Imperfectionists, a linked series of short stories about the misfits who work at an international English-language newspaper headquartered in Rome. His follow-up, a more conventionally structured novel, involves a woman who fled a confusing history—one in which she spent most of her youth being raised by an abductor in various global locales—to open up a bookstore in a tiny Welsh town. Of course, her past comes back to haunt her. The premise is strong; the execution, not so much. This was thoroughly disappointing; about halfway through, I put it down for a few days and didn’t feel any need to pick it up again.

Greil Marcus – The History of Rock’n’Roll in Ten Songs. My review for Maclean’s is here.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Americanah. As a North American, one of the best things about reading literature by immigrants is seeing familiar terrain portrayed as alien absurdity, in ways that only an outsiders’ eye can. Not that Adichie is an outsider: she’s lived almost as much of her life in the U.S. as she did in her native Nigeria; she now splits her time between the two countries, which—obviously—greatly informs this novel, whose central character feels like a foreigner in both worlds. Specifically, the disconnect between Africans and African-Americans is a key theme. Class and race play a large role here, but not at all in a way that overwhelms the narrative. Adichie is a stunning writer with a great eye for detail, character and nuance; the plot here is almost incidental. Reading it reminded me of The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz—one of my favourite books, despite the fact I barely remember anything about the plot. Indeed, the conventional fairy-tale ending here is completely unsatisfying and unrealistic—all the more so because it contrasts so greatly with the tone of the rest of the novel. But that’s really just the last 10 pages of an otherwise flawless and fascinating book. It was announced recently that Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and David Oyelowo (Selma) will be starring in a film adaptation.

John Darnielle – Wolf in White Van (abandoned). Despite facing consternation from dozens of my peers, I’ve never warmed to John Darnielle’s music in the Mountain Goats. I can, however, recognize that he’s a great storyteller and lyricist: I’d often wondered what he’d be like as a novelist. Judging by reaction to this, his debut, the transition was easy: it’s nominated for a National Book Award. The central character is a disfigured loner who created a mail-in role-playing game (I was not aware that was a thing) that a couple of its fans took too seriously, with (I’m assuming) terrible results. I wanted to like this book, but the world of role-playing games… well, let’s just say it’s far from my reality. And Darnielle parses out information slowly through the novel, so by the halfway point I was still guessing what the pivotal plot point might be—which makes this more of a mystery novel than anything, but I wasn’t sold on the device or the premise.

Gillian Flynn – Dark Places. A theme Darnielle has touched on in the past is the Satanic witch hunts of the 1980s, when teenagers who listened to heavy metal music were vilified and, in some cases, accused of horrific crimes. Flynn uses the hysteria of that time as the backdrop to this, her second novel (her third would be Gone Girl). A woman whose brother was jailed for killing the rest of her family gets pulled back into the case and suddenly has reason to doubt everything she’s ever known. This being Flynn, of course, there are no obvious answers, everyone is unreliable, and she keeps you guessing right until the exhilarating end.

Sean Michaels – Us Conductors. My brief review and Q&A with Michaels is here.

Bruce Cockburn – Rumours of Glory. My review for Maclean’s is here. Something that occurred to me after I wrote the review: Cockburn admits to being almost completely humourless until about the late 1980s, but never explains what changed his demeanour. Maybe just the wisdom of age? Or did it have something to do with his sudden interest in firearms—which came about as part of a physical therapy program—when he had to overcome assumptions he had of himself?

Susan Fast – Dangerous (abandoned). Oh Carl Wilson, what have you wrought? Ever since Wilson’s excellent book about Celine Dion (like this one, written for the 33 1/3 series) upended how we study seemingly silly pop music, we now live in an age when we’re supposed to pretend that Taylor Swift is deep. Here we have a McMaster University academic taking on Michael Jackson’s least-loved album of his commercial prime. Not a terrible premise, perhaps, but it’s a hard sell, and Fast’s ivory-tower prose doesn’t make for the most engaging read. You didn’t have to know Dion’s music intimately to appreciate Wilson’s book; you do, I believe, at least need an informed opinion of Dangerous—an album I’m happy to avoid revisiting. I did, however—and yes, it’s better than I gave it credit for, certainly better than Bad (the album). But even as a connoisseur of cheese, I don’t think there is any way on Earth to defend “Heal the World” or the other mawkish ballads here. Maybe that’s my loss; I can live with that.

Sarah Lazarovic – All the Pretty Things I Did Not Buy. I am not the target audience for this book: I do not buy clothes. At one point, apparently, Lazarovic did. A lot. Working from home, she would treat herself to online shopping as a break, until she realized she had things she didn’t even remember buying, never mind needing in the first place. For a year, the sketch artist decided to abstain from new purchases, while examining her relationship to fashion and materialism in general. This illustrated book is slight on size; you can read it in one sitting. But I’m such a huge fan of Lazarovic’s sense of humour, insight, and drawing style that I’m always excited to read her take on anything—yes, even fashion.

Ann-Marie MacDonald – Adult Onset. MacDonald has written two of my favourite modern novels. This is not one of them. I didn’t even want to finish it. Ostensibly a story about long-suppressed trauma, instead it reads like a story of typical Canadian emotional repression, detailing one woman’s humdrum everyday life raising two toddlers while her partner is working on the other side of the country; the climax is a visit from her parents in which nothing is resolved. I’m not even clear what needs to be resolved: maybe one of them broke the protagonist’s arm by mistake as a child? We don’t even know that for sure. And so the parents didn’t like to discuss the children they lost as infants—well, who would? We’re supposed to be shocked, I suppose, when the protagonist yells at her young daughter after a tantrum involving boots. But what parent has not done this, whether or not there was trauma in their own childhood? Jesus Christ, we’re only human: one moment of verbal abuse doesn’t make you a monster. Meanwhile, MacDonald gives us an unnecessarily detailed tour of her Annex neighbourhood in Toronto, including what seems to be pointless product placement for a certain lingerie store at Bathurst and Bloor. The book is far more interesting when MacDonald explores the complicated bitterness of loving your suddenly queer-positive parents while still vividly remembering the horrible, vile things they said to you when you came out decades ago. I’d much rather read that book. I’m fully cognizant of my myriad privileges, having grown up male and heterosexual in a happy household, which this character certainly did not. Perhaps I shouldn’t even be reviewing this book at all—but part of the reason I read any book is to learn something outside my own experience. Sadly, I disliked it on many levels, but mostly because I expected so much from MacDonald.

Allie Bosh – Hyperbole and a Half. I first saw Bosh’s comic strips when her blog post on depression went viral: it was both hilarious and full of intense hurt—not an easy balance. She maintains that balance throughout this book, which is about feeling like an awkward misfit during those times when you’re not in a full-on depression—as well as the absurdity and silliness in the everyday.

Edward St. Aubyn – Lost for Words. I’m sure there’s a wickedly funny satirical novel to be written about book prizes. This is not it. Other than a few choice passages and spot-on parodies of Irvine Welsh, bawdy historical English novels and back-to-the-land Canadiana, this is the work of a talented writer spinning his wheels and shooting turkeys.

Suki Kim – Without You There is No Us. Ms. Kim accepted a job at a school outside Pyongyang run by Christian missionaries; the students were the sons of the North Korean elite (even though a class system is not acknowledged to exist). Kim is a Seoul-born, American atheist writer with every intention of documenting her stay; that’s only one of the secrets she has to keep from both her fellow teachers and the “counterparts” who oversee them. She is suitably mystified by almost everything about North Korean society, including the groupthink and almost complete lack of individuality of her curious (in all respects) students, whom she grows to love—and pity. We all know that North Korea is the last Orwellian, authoritarian regime left in the world; Kim’s book shows exactly what that means for everyday life there. There is no individual expression whatsoever. There is no culture—at all, of any medium—that does not exist to serve Kim Jong Il (she leaves just days after his death, before the succession of Kim Jong Un in 2011). The population has literally no idea that the world is not cowering before the greatness of North Korea; they crave international recognition and think everyone is envious of kimchi. Ms. Kim’s perspective is also unique: she’s not a defector and she’s not entirely a foreigner; she has immediate family members (uncles, cousins) who disappeared in North Korea during the war. She speaks the language; she understands how strange it is to hear incredibly violent and profane refutations of South Korea and the U.S. in both everyday speech and newscasts (“Imagine seeing ‘fuck’ or ‘shit’ in a headline in the New York Times”). It sounds like an intensely lonely year in hell—although surely she knew that going in. Her writing evokes great sympathy, but she willingly put herself in a situation where she was going to betray everyone there by writing a book at the end—and so our sympathy only extends so far. But this is an enlightening and great read—so the end justifies the means, right? Right?

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