Belated Reading Breakdown for 2017

2017 Reading Breakdown Feature Image

I apologize for the lateness of this reading breakdown; I’d anticipated having time to work on it back in January, but other projects intervened over and over again, and I simply haven’t had the time until today. My reading project for 2017 was significantly smaller in scale than in previous years, and if nothing else, the sharper focus yielded fewer books I didn’t connect with—in fact, I chose not to make a “worst of the year” list at all. For those who haven’t been reading along, for Canada’s 150th birthday I read and wrote about one book every month that was new to me but is considered a Canadian classic by one metric or another. Since I finished early, I also wrote about a “bonus” thirteenth book that was recommended by several people. I read a total of 71 books in 2017, down 22 from 93 in 2016 and down… Continue Reading

Sourdough, by Robin Sloan

Detail of Sourdough cover

Apparently the sourdough bread in San Francisco is unique in the world; it not only has a reputation for being unusually good, with a strangely tangy flavour, the starter in San Francisco sourdough has its own strain of bacteria not found anywhere else. This sounds so much like bullshit that it’s a perfect metaphor for how San Francisco sees itself; the fact that it’s true almost ruins it. I liked Sourdough almost as much as I liked Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, which makes sense, because the two books have a lot in common. Sloan’s writing in both is clean and direct; personable, even. He’s not in any danger of developing a reputation as a stylist, but he gets balance and rhythm, knows when and how to be funny, knows when to stop. That’s harder to get right than many imagine; I can direct to you to some books if you… Continue Reading

The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson

Detail from the cover of The Double Hook

When planning this year’s reading project I put out a call for book recommendations; I received several, but the most common one was The Double Hook, by Sheila Watson. It didn’t make the cut for a number of reasons—mostly because my list was already pretty heavy on pre-CanCon material—but I added it as a “just in case” book, because I was having trouble locating copies of some of the other books. But December has rolled around, I’ve finished all twelve of my posts, and it turns out that I have time to do one more: my bonus book, The Double Hook. Sheila Watson’s prose was absolutely glorious. In a great many ways it reminded me of the best of Southern US writing; the same deceptively simple diction, the same idiosyncratic syntax, the same presentation of the mundane as the mythic. The Double Hook was gorgeous from beginning to end, but… Continue Reading

The Inconvenient Indian, by Thomas King

Detail from the cover of The Inconvenient Indian

The Inconvenient Indian was one of the first books I chose for my Canada 150 project. I picked it up in the store, read a couple of pages, and was instantly hooked. Had it not been for my decision to read the books in chronological order, this would have been my first selection rather than my last, though perhaps it’s fitting to end the project here. The Inconvenient Indian was compulsively readable from sentence one, full of wit and charisma and righteous anger. It definitely made me want to read more of King’s work. I’m not always comfortable writing about non-fiction; if you aren’t an expert in the subject—or at least have a solid grounding—then there’s not much you can comment on except the quality of the prose. And I’m certainly not a historian, an expert in Native cultures, nor on any of the specific political issues at play between… Continue Reading

The Polished Hoe, by Austin Clarke

Detail of The Polished Hoe cover

The Polished Hoe has been on my to-be-read this for about a decade, but I’ve come to the unfortunate conclusion that, for a number of reasons, it’s just not for me. This is not to say I thought the book was bad—far from it. Clarke’s account of the abuses of plantation life and the way it warps the people of the island and their relationships is deeply affecting. His characters have tremendous depth, especially Mary-Mathilda, and her narrative is truly heartbreaking. You’re expecting me to say but, and here it comes: there were a number of mechanical issues in The Polished Hoe that I just couldn’t get past. I’ve never been a fan of novels built almost entirely out of dialogue, and it didn’t work for me here either. In some ways The Polished Hoe reminds me of The Recognitions, by William Gaddis. Almost all of the thematic heavy lifting… Continue Reading

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid's Tale cover detail

It should come as no surprise to anyone who has known me for very long or who follows me on social media but, despite having read nine of her books, I actually don’t like Margaret Atwood’s work very much. I continue to read her books mostly out of a sense of professional obligation. I am therefore both pleased and surprised to report that I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be absolutely riveting. There are some books—and I usually try to avoid making statements like this, because most of the time they’re bullshit—that have an ineffable quality that separates them from other books; they are in some way the real deal, and The Handmaid’s Tale is one of them. I don’t know that I would have felt that way if I’d read it earlier. Certainly my point of view has changed as I’ve gotten older, but since November the world has… Continue Reading

The Wars, by Timothy Findley

The Wars cover detail

The Wars is my second Timothy Findley novel, the other being Famous Last Words. That they both wound up being war novels is a coincidence. I did try The Piano Man’s Daughter when I was younger, which was recommended to me by someone after I’d told them how much I loved The Stone Diaries, but I put it down before finishing the first chapter out of utter fucking boredom, and I never went back to it. Famous Last Words was better, and fortunately so was The Wars. The framing device of an unnamed historian or researcher with no clear identity of their own examining the life of Robert Ross is a bit strange; it doesn’t cohere in any meaningful way, but it does make the primary narrative extremely unreliable. Ross also feels under-developed. We know he’s sensitive, unsure of his sexuality, dislikes violence but is comforted by the authority his… Continue Reading

Bear, by Marian Engel

Photo of a bear resting on a log.

For those who aren’t familiar, there’s no delicate way to say it: Bear is that infamous Canadian novel about the woman who has sex with a bear. An actual bear. There is a rather famous, very lurid cover that makes the rounds on social media every so often, but unfortunately I was not lucky enough to find one of those. My copy (pictured here) is a first edition, and rather appropriately comes in a plain brown wrapper. Having not read any of Marian Engel’s other work I was completely in the dark. On the one hand, the premise almost cries out for something gonzo; on the other hand, it is not the done thing to give the Governor General’s Award to works of gonzo literature. Sadly, Bear was not gonzo, but happily, it turned out to be quite elegant. Of all the things it could have been, that was the… Continue Reading

The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence

Photo of Margaret Laurence

I imagine that the vast majority of Canadian readers of my generation know Margaret Laurence through her novel The Stone Angel, a wonderful but not very kid-friendly book that has been a staple of Canadian high school curricula for at least two generations. If that was your first encounter with Laurence you can be forgiven for not going any deeper into her oeuvre; I loved The Stone Angel, but that was more despite the way it was taught to me in high school rather than because of it, and I can see why many readers would be inclined to steer clear of her other work. Margaret Laurence’s books are, on the surface at least, less exciting than those of Canada’s other great Margaret, Margaret Atwood. Who would want to read about village life in pre-war Manitoba when there are fast-paced stories about dissatisfied urban intellectuals to devour, and who cares… Continue Reading

Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro

Detail from the cover of Alice Munro's Lives of Girls and Women

Alice Munro has a way of deflating things usually thought majestic, and granting majesty to things normally thought small and plain. I tweeted that earlier this month, and the passage that got me thinking about it was the opening of a section called “Changes and Ceremonies” in which Del and her friend Naomi become wrapped up the mythology of both sex and art, entering puberty and acting in the school play. It is an amazing thing: Boys’ hate was dangerous, it was keen and bright, a miraculous birthright, like Arthur’s sword snatched out of the stone, in the Grade Seven Reader. Girls’ hate, in comparison, seemed muddled and tearful, sourly defensive. Boys would bear down on you on their bicycles and cleave the air where you had been, magnificently, with no remorse, as if they wished there were knives on their wheels. And they would say anything. They would say… Continue Reading