Tuesday, December 27, 2016

My Best Books of 2016

This year I read a lot of non-fiction and so I will start with my six favourites. Then I add on a list of delightful  fiction and end with the clunker of the year.

Susan Faludi
1.     In the Darkroom by Susan Faludi. This book gripped me on three levels. First was the story of Faludi’s seventy-six year-old estranged father who went through sex reassignment surgery and become a woman. He returned to live in his native Hungary. The father’s story was only one labyrinth that Faludi entered when she reunited with her dad and learned what she could about his strange early life. I was also gripped by the story of Faludi’s close ancestors, Hungarian Jews, and their various fates. In Hungary, she uncovers more secrets including the deliberate sealing over of the Hungarian government’s Nazi past and its return in its right-wing present. This is not only a book about masquerades and secrets, it is also about the quest for identity by many trans gendered people, by the country of Hungary and by Faludi herself as she opens another book of fading letters to reveal her own family’s past.

Ma-nee Chacaby
2.     A Two-Spirit Journey: The Autobiography of a Lesbian Ojibway-Cree Elder by Ma-nee Chacaby (with Mary Louisa Plumber.) I was riveted from the first page of this amazing memoir, so honest that  it soars. Chacaby tells her life story starting with a happy and then tragic childhood in a remote Ojibway community riven by alcoholism and poverty. Although her grandmother taught her the spiritual traditions, she could not protect the girl from sexual abuse. As an adult, Chacaby fought to escape alcoholism, a violent husband and eventually moved to Thunder Bay with her children. A remarkable woman, Chacaby became a healer, a teacher and a role model for many Aboriginal lesbians. She has devoted her life to help others. This book will become a classic.

3.     Memories – From Moscow to The Black Sea – by Teffi.  Teffi was a familiar writer in early 20th century Russia. She wrote popular short stories and personal vignettes in her trademark water-clear prose. When the revolution broke out, she knew she had to escape. Her diary of her travels, recently published in English, introduced me to the people she met on the road and tossed me into the general zeitgeist of refuges, people in fearful flight. She showed me the way the refugees think, act and hope. The odd characters, the vignettes set in strange settings, a ship still in port after many days, the search for a place to stay, created a mosaic of desperate people in dangerous times.

4.     Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett. Patchett writes about her friend, a facially disfigured woman, author of The Story of a Face. Both are writers but, as time passes, the friend has surgery after surgery, lured on by the extravagant promises of surgeons who are also free with the oxy. She becomes addicted and uses drugs and alcoholic to drown her despair and ease her pain. Patchett cannot stop this dangerous downward spiral but her book is a tribute to those who struggle for a meaningful life even though life has handed them near impossible challenges.

5.     The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. Terrific travel around Britain with Bryson. His wit, his satirical, curmudgeonly attitudes and his eye for interesting stuff carries this travel memoir to new heights. He hates ugly and loves beauty. He finds lots of both.

6.     The M Train by Pattie Smith. She is a poet and a mystic. She loves certain pop culture, especially certain tv serials. Her commitment to herself is absolute. She does concerts, readings and travels  to places that interest her such as Genet’s grave. She has no political or social analysis. All important is what goes on in her dreams, her head, her senses. She buys a house that is a wreck but Hurricane Sandy devastates the neighbourhood. She does charity work in Japan. Her photos are the grainy blurred things now in fashion. She mourns her husband and mentions her two grown kids but they do not appear in the book. She fetishizes – Diego and Freida, Genet, the beats in Morrocco, Sylvia Plath, certain Japanese writers including Mishima. Her connections to nature are there but she lives in NY City, loves it, has a routine for coffee, a certain café etc. All is fetishized even her clothes. She loses a lot of stuff, a coat, her suitcases, etc. The book contains many stories of lost things. In short, I like her very much.

Fiction. I read some first-rate fiction this year, some recent best sellers and others still glowing after many years.              

1.     The Three Weissmans of Westport by Cathleen Shine. I liked this book a lot. A great plot, witty dialogue, interesting characters and so, what’s not to like? Betty Weissman is dumped by her husband of 48 years. She and her two middle-aged daughters, sensible Annie and emotional Miranda, join her in her new digs, a run-down beach cottage in Westport. Basically a marriage plot, and enjoyable nevertheless, we have to know if Betty will get her New York life back, if Annie will partner with the famous author in spite of his controlling family and if Miranda will ever find true love. Any links to Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility are definitely intended.

2.     The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Somehow I missed this terrific book, first published in 1961. In a British private school for girls, s school mistress slowly corrupts her favourite pupils bending their thoughts towards sex and fascism. A short read and a powerful one, slowly building to some kind of denouement but I had no idea what it would be. I stayed up most of one night to find out. This is the kind of novel that stays with you even after you finally close the covers and say, Wow, what a book!

3.     Minister Without Portfolio by Michael Winter. A young Newfoundlander goes off to Afghanistan and returns when a friend is killed, caused by his own bungling. He tries to piece his life back together and ends up living in his friend’s house and with his friend’s girlfriend. The book is mainly a series of stories about the people he knows. Henry, the protagonist, is drawn to the sense of history in the village. I read this book compulsively.

4.     His Whole Life By Elizabeth Hay Excellent book about a woman with a young boy who moves from the US to Canada and finds a new life after her husband leaves her to return to New York. A satisfying book, one that is often termed “a good read.”

5.     Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl by Mona Awad.  What woman has not hated the shape inside her skin? Here, in an original voice, funny, wry and sad, we follow the shape-shifting and name-shifting Beth/Elizabeth/ Betty as she struggles with friendship, love, family and her life inside her skin. Short listed for the Giller, this is “a book with legs” as many book sites continue to recommend it.

6.     Outline by Rachel Cusk Such a fine book with such a strange premise. People talking about life, love and relationships. A woman goes to Athens to teach English and meets people. You could start this book in the middle and work backwards, it would make no difference.  Little truths jump out of the conversations; big truths follow. A winner.

The Clunker. Sometimes a well-written book, a book I am enjoying, takes such a nasty turn that I want to throw it far, far away. Sometimes, it is racism, either covert or overt, which can appear suddenly in many older books and which can throw you off a favourite author forever.  Here it is misogyny and from a very popular modern writer.

The Road Home by Rose Tremain. I start off reading a good story. Lev, a young Polish man, arrives in London and has to find a way to make a living and send money home. He gets various jobs and a girl friend. He also acquires a friend who beats his wife and so is estranged from her and his daughter. It is at this point I get a strange feeling about the book. The wife is depicted as vindictive and cold and the abuser is depicted as a true friend, a warm man, hurt by circumstances. On the job, Lev’s boss bemoans the fact that his wife left taking his daughter, and an acquaintance opines that men have a hard time nowadays.
I should have stopped there but I read on. I am identifying with Lev, who in spite of setbacks, is making a new life for himself. One of those setbacks is his off-again, on- again girlfriend who finally leaves him. What does he do? He attacks her and brutally rapes her. This is treated as excusable behaviour. Poor Lev. He feels bad about it the next day but he is still the hero of the novel. He will experience a happy ending. The girlfriend is never mentioned again.
            At this point I turned to the net and the reviews. All that I found, and I read many, and many from major newspapers, praised the book and ignored the rape. Then I went to Goodreads and the opinions of readers. Most of them reacted as I did. One woman said she felt sick. I understand the feeling.

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