Sunday, January 3, 2016

My Favourite Books of 2015

Once again, this avid reader read a lot in 2015, finishing over ninety books.  It may seem like an impossobility but a few were graphic novels which I can finish in a couple of hours and others were audio books to ease long drives. Most of the books were enjoyable; a few were disappointments. Here are my top picks of the year.

1.     The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King. An amazing book that sails through environmental destruction with a creative cast of characters is an imaginative tale told with brio, wit, and cutting truth. King grabs our society by the throat and does not let go.  A novel of ideas, such a rare and welcome change from the usual personal sad story. Top book for 2015. I also read King’s The Red Power Murders. Funny with a cutting edge.

2.     The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd . A novel based on the lives of the Grimke sisters, born into a slave-owning plantation family, who led the fight for abolition but also for women’s rights. The book moves to the slaves’ point of view as it tells the story of an enslaved child who is given to the sisters as a birthday gift. The book was so powerful I was dreaming about it.

3.     Trapper by W. Swado. While driving to Winnipeg this summer. I stopped for gas near Ignace and saw this book for sale on the counter. It turned out to be a treasure. Swado’s  memoir describes the life of a trapping family who lived near Atikokan. Plenty of great Northern Ontario stories about trapping, smuggling, living off the land, working as a guide and the challenges of surviving in the bush. 

4.     The Blue Flower by Penelope  Fitzgerald  This Booker prize winner is Fitzgerald’s masterpiece. Set in 18th century Prussia, the novel is based on the true story of Novalis, a young man who wants to become a poet and philosopher. We meet his strange family and follow his student life including his love for a 12 year old girl. A book full of wonderful historical detail.

5.     The Dawn Chorus by Helen Humphries. A British soldier, a prisoner in a Nazi POW camp, receives a Dear John. His wife in England has an affair with a man who is later killed. Financially, she is doomed.  Unable to get a job, she lives with a nasty mother and has no back bone to make a stand. The ending is pleasantly ambiguous. The characters are unforgettable.

6.     The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens. Four people are lost on a mountain. They encounter thirst, hunger, wild animals and strange ideas. Lots of conversation, back and forth. It is the mark of an accomplished writer that the story never lags and that the characters are as vivid and sharp as mountain air.

7.     Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. By Alison Bechdel.  Graphic memoir. The father of the family, an English teacher, is a closet gay and a tyrant to his children as he devotes his time to remodeling and decorating his large old house with a perfectionism which extends to the garden, his kids' clothes and their lives. As Alison gradually discovers her own lesbianism she also discovers her father’s secrets. Bechdel cleverly weaves in the themes of several books which her father loves and which define, in some way, his life: Ulysses, Catcher in the Rye, The Dubliners and so on. An unforgettable portrait of loss and what might have been.

8.     This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki. Another graphic novel. A young girl meets up with her friend at the cottage community but the two discover a secret. A coming of age, beautifully drawn.

9.     Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Four years after her mother died, Strayed  entered into a permanent world of grief. She decides to walk the long Pacific Trail to conquer her demons. I admire Strayed’s guts, her winning fight against fear, her ability to endure pain and I think, above all, her attitude to her poverty. I also liked her candour when she spoke about her sexual desires and her sexual life. She has little money to use on the trail and so she mailed forward boxes with a 20$ bill in them to each stop along the way, all she could afford. I missed her once the book was done

10. Nights at the Alexandra by William Trevor A short novel but a wonderful one. A young boy in 1940’s Ireland meets a newly arrived couple, he German and she English. The friendship that develops opens his eyes and changes his life. 

11.The Little Third Reich on Lake Superior by Ernest Zimmerman. The history of the Red Rock POW camp. Spy scares in Britain caused panic at the beginning of WW II leading to round ups of German men and boys, many who previously had escaped Nazi Germany and settled in Britain. A number of them were Jewish. The British shipped them to Canada along with regular prisoners of war. The puzzled Canadian authorities took a long time figuring things out. These blameless civilians ended up in Red Rock Camp along with doctrinaire Nazis.

12. Euphoria by Lily King. I read this in a day plus. The story of anthropologists in New Guinea, inspired by the events in the life of  Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead, is also a scintillating love story.  One review called it smart and steamy.

13. May We Be Forgiven by A. M. Holmes. A very rich book, full of engrossing characters, ideas and love. The main character, Harry, starts off as a confused and brow-beaten academic teaching students who only take the course because nothing else is available. His brother, always a violent bully, murders his wife and Harry becomes the guardian of the children. Harry is also an expert on Nixon and, throughout the book, Nixon intrudes on Harry’s thoughts, giving the novel an interesting psychological motif.

One thing leads to another.  I reread Room With a View, by E.M. Forster which led me on to the movie and then Howard’s End and its movie. As usual, the books were better than the movies, mainly, in this case, because they contained Forster’s  Jane Austin-like wit. I Loved A Single Man, Christopher Isherwood’s masterpiece and had the good luck to find his dairy in a used book store and so whistled through the account of an unusual life. Then I sent for the movie with Colin Firth and the beat goes on.

 In the wonderful second hand bookstores of Stillwater, Minnesota, Warsaw, and Winnipeg, I hunted for more Isherwood but got sidetracked by The Captive Mind by Czeslaw Milosz, an insightful account of the psychological  destruction caused by Communism which led me, and why not, to Orwell’s diary. Naturally that led to Thomas Mallon's new political novel about Ronald Reagan called Finale. Somehow, Orwell and Mallon were followed by a couple of LeCarres which I had not previously read.

 Old friends popped out of the library’s shelves. Ha Jin, who I met at the Humber School of Writers, charmed me with A Map of Betrayal and another old friend, Joe Fioritto, double charmed me with his off-the-wall book Rust is a Form of Fire. Joe  stood on a Toronto street corner and wrote it all down. And why not?

Your fav books of the year? Comments, quibbles, complaints and caveats can be sent to Love to hear from you.

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