Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Best Books of 2011

I may have mentioned before that one of my best gigs is writing book reviews for our local paper. I love it and take my responsibility -- to reader and writer - really seriously.

Today I had the opportunity to correspond electronically back and forth with one of the authors whose books I most enjoyed this year, and it made me want to spread the word about her books even farther and wider.

And so, with the thought that many of us are doing holiday shopping these days, I thought I'd offer a list of the best books I read this year. Please note that the longer reviews are ones that I wrote for my newspaper reviews, and that there were many other books that could have made this list.

1. Museum of Thieves by Lian Tanner
When my children were small, I read chapters of great books aloud to them each night. We slowly made our way through classic books and newfound treasures. As they got older, sports and homework began to dominate our evenings and we decided we would read aloud mainly in the summertime. This spring, I picked up Museum of Thieves, read it and announced to my children that homework could wait - we would be reading this one aloud.

Museum of Thieves is a unique book in so many ways. It is a kind of dystopian fiction for children, to start with. In the book’s world, children are the most precious of commodities and must be kept safe from a wide variety of dangers – including dirty water, scrapes and possibly extinct creatures. The characters allude to a time when all the dangers of their town, Jewel, were contained. After this time, children were kept chained at the wrist to Blessed Guardians by day and parents by night until they are 12. On Goldie Roth’s Separation Day, the unthinkable happens: a child is murdered. The Separation ceremony is cancelled but Goldie, prompted by an inner voice that never leads her wrong and the appearance of a mysterious man, escapes. By the next morning, she has found her way to safety in the town’s Museum.

The Museum, as the title suggests, is a major character in the novel, but it is no less memorable than its Keepers who teach Goldie, “The people of Jewel treat their children like delicate flowers. They think they will not survive without constant protection. Bu there are parts of the world where young boys and girls spend weeks at a time with no company except a herd of goats...And so, when hard times come – as they always do in the end – those children are resourceful and brave.” Goldie learns that a certain amount of wildness is not only necessary, but desirable. When disaster does befall the town, Goldie is ready.

One reviewer of this book took objection to the fact that the people of Jewel worship a wide variety of gods and that the Blessed Guardians who are condemned sound like conservative Christians. I think this reviewer fails to see a few things: first, the gods are completely powerless and foolish, and secondly, what is criticized here is not conservatism – the good guys are museum keepers and the city’s leader – but those who prevent any progress, those who believe that there is no room for freedom and bravery and wildness. If the church loses those virtues, it should indeed be criticized. But here, no critique of a particular institution is intended.

This book delighted my kids as well as me, and brought me to tears more than once, thanks to the spirit of its characters. The book stands alone well, but, happily for readers, will have at least one sequel, published later this year.

2. One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp
This book is a rare thing: a lyrical, brutally honest, deeply theological meditation. To summarize it thematically would reduce what it is, but Voskamp -- who is a local author -- tells how a small, simple practice entirely changed her life. I am buying several copies of this book to give at Christmas.

3. The Antagonist by Lynn Coady
I could not put this book down – it knocked my socks off. If it were up to me, I would put this book on Canadian high school English curriculum, along with Robertson Davies and W.O. Mitchell. Of course, the book would be taken off the curriculum for the excessive amounts of profanity it contains, but that would be a shame, because this is a masterfully told tale, by a narrator who, frankly, needs to swear. At times this book reminded me a bit of The Catcher in the Rye or even a bit of The Great Gatsby or Fifth Business, but it is also clearly its own self with an intense and sympathetic narrative voice. The story is told in a series of unrequited emails from a middle-aged man to his college friend who has written a loosely-veiled novel about the real life of the narrator. The series of letters create a powerful layering experience through which truths are gradually revealed and re-revealed, with new nuances added by reflection over time. I have not yet read a novel that integrates electronic communication and social media so deeply and well into its narrative – here, this is done as part of the writer’s (and narrator’s) exploration into identity, how we are known, the stories we tell and the roles we play within stories. This is an extraordinarily powerful novel by an author previously unknown to me – I will certainly be picking up her other books.

4. Ghost Light by Joseph O'Connor
The last time I read a novel plastered with extremely high praise, I have to admit I was disappointed. The author in that case was no 21st century Jane Austen. Ghost Light, by Irish author Joseph O’Connor, is tattooed with the most laudatory comments, but I’m not sure they even begin to scratch the surface. This was a remarkable book. I have little to compare it to.

As a writer, I wondered what state I would have to get into in order to be able to write with the subtle, exquisite lyricism O’Connor uses throughout. This is a book written by someone who adores and has fully and utterly mastered the English language, but also by someone who adores and lovingly observes every bit of the world around him.

O’Connor takes for his premise the fact that the real-life playwright John Synge died prematurely of Hodgkin’s disease, leaving behind a fiancĂ©e, Molly Allgood, an actress from a lower class of society. However, as O’Connor writes in his Acknowledgements at the end of the book, this is a work of fiction where the author “takes immense liberties with facts”, including character and plot.

The novel is told largely in the second person, which is unusual in itself. The “you” who is addressed is Molly, now an old woman as she lives in near starvation and alcoholism, but at the same time recalls beautiful and vivid moments from her past, particularly her affair with Synge.

The most beautiful scene in the book – a month’s idyll spent at a cottage – stands in sharp contrast to the perceptions of Molly as an old drunk, and reminds readers of the possible past lives of any person they might meet.

The title is only revealed near the end with the explanation that a light is traditionally left burning in a theatre so the ghosts can perform their own plays. Synge’s shaping influence in Molly’s life, before and after his death, make him a significant presence in the novel.

Any reader who appreciates a well-told, well-crafted story will be sure to delight in this book.

5. A Trick of the Light by Louise Penny

A Trick of the Light is the seventh book in the series, set in fictional Three Pines, a small Quebecois village, with a familiar cast of characters. Penny’s books are nothing if not character-driven and her legion of fans flock to these books to see what happens next to these beloved people. While not quite as strong as her last book, readers will not be disappointed.

A Trick of the Light is brilliantly plotted and is also possibly one of Penny’s most personal of novels, dealing as it does with alcoholism, its roots and consequences, as well as the experiences of success and rejection in the artistic realm. I waffled back and forth between delight at genuine insights into these difficult places and an occasional sense that the book was a vehicle for the author’s experiences.

Still, I was kept guessing at the murderer’s identity until nearly the end, and I both chuckled out loud and got tears in my eyes as I read. Also, as always, I appreciated Penny’s deep insights into human motivations and – perhaps more than in any previous book-- the way she weaves the interplay of light and dark in both art and human nature together with tremendous insight into both. I also like the way Penny connects books together – not everything is wrapped up by the end.

One of my biggest beefs with the book was its timeline and the sheer number of events and personal developments that took place over such a very short period of time – if I were one of the characters, I think I’d be exhausted, but it also seemed too quick to have a ritual smudging to get rid of bad spirits the very day that the body was found. I was struck, too, by the amount of profanity in this book: many of Penny’s witty, distinctive characters have always had salty language, but in this book, it seemed that the profanity had gone up a few notches, including times that seemed arbitrary. I also found at least one scene heavy-handed – a scene of great revelation takes place during a violent thunderstorm, but by the end, the storm has moved on. The reader doesn’t need the pathetic fallacy for the emotional resonance – Penny has created a rich world with memorable characters and leaves the reader eager for the next instalment.

6. Divergent by Veronica Roth
If you thought deciding which house you might belong to at Hogwarts was exciting, wait until you try to decide which life-altering choice the characters in Divergent should make. In a vaguely post-apocalyptic Chicago, people have decided that the root of war is not ideology so much as personality flaws. Society is split into factions which function as parallel tribes, based on which personality problem people believe is at the root of conflict. Those who believe deception are the problem, for instance, live in Candor, while those who believe hate is the issue live in Amity. At the age of sixteen, each child undergoes a chemically-induced aptitude test to determine which faction they are best suited to. The following day, the teens must declare their allegiance, and join their new (or old) faction to complete their education. Divergent begins on the day of the aptitude test and is told from the point of view of Beatrice (or Tris) who has never felt completely at home in her self-denying faction of Abnegation.

I had trouble putting this book down. I read it late into the night and then dreamed about it.

Veronica Roth, the author, sold this book while she was still a university student living in Chicago. Roth creates a terrific and believable world. Like the Harry Potter books, Divergent functions as a kind of boarding school story, but in many ways, it is better likened to The Hunger Games series, in terms of its challenges, violence and political subplots.

Roth does not shy away from instances of violence in this book, and unlike The Hunger Games, the violence is not exactly condemned. Instead Roth sorts out whether the faction solution can actually work and how it leads to a new set of problems.

Roth hooked me with her ability to write about teenage romantic yearnings – and she creates at least one character I could develop a crush on.

Divergent is going to be the first book in a trilogy. While I devoured this book and am eager to read more, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy the last few chapters that set up the next book. Things changed far too quickly and felt like it created a “to be continued” sense of disappointment at the end, rather than having a satisfying feeling of completion. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this book and recommend it highly to teens and adults.

7. The Feast Nearby by Robin Mather
In one unforgettable week in April 2009, Robin Mather’s husband announced he wanted a divorce and the Chicago Tribune, where Mather worked as a food writer, laid her off. Stunned, Mather packed her dog, her parrot and her belongings into her old car and drove to her cottage on a lake in Michigan. The Feast Nearby details the next year of her life, a year devoted to living as well as possible on a meagre freelancing income. Mather’s previous life had afforded her opportunities to eat fabulous meals. She writes, “Those days were gone. Still, eating well had become my habit. I was unwilling to compromise on that matter.”

I have read a wide variety of books about local eating – from Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle to The 100 Mile Diet. This book is by far my favourite in the genre. I was delighted by so many things about this book. Chiefly, I appreciated Mather’s attitude and sensibility. Rather than being motivated by any kind of agenda, Mather applies commonsense to all the cooking lessons she learned from her mother, a thrifty, seasonal cook, and from her years as a food writer. She buys local food because she wants to support her neighbours and because it is cheapest and often tastiest to buy local food in season.

Mather’s first book, published in 1995, A Garden of Unearthly Delights: Bioengineering and the Future of Food was the first to expose the consequences of genetically-modified foods. Still, she is no purist. She acknowledges that she could not afford to buy all-organic food, and that coffee is a necessity. She also does not skimp on good spices, Parmigiagno-Reggiano cheese and occasional non-local delicacies, but she uses them judiciously. I so appreciated Mather’s non-judgmental attitude: she has carefully thought through her ethics of food and the limitations of her budget and understands that others may make different decisions. The entire locavore movement would do well to embrace such an attitude of thoughtfulness toward both food and people.

I like to think I’m a good cook and I’ve been buying local food and cooking seasonally all my adult life, but again and again, I learned new cooking and preserving tips from Mather, who intersperses short chapters, arranged in seasonal order, with excellent recipes of dishes she has talked about in the preceding chapter. The recipes are all simple and inexpensive – Mather was living on a food budget of $40 per week and could not, for instance, afford to be part of a community-shared agriculture arrangement – but almost all were new and deeply appealing to me. Of the recipes, Mather says they “satisfy[y] the spirit and nurture the body.”

Another aspect of Mather’s book that I appreciated was that this was not a memoir. The only mention of her now-ex-husband after the initial divorce announcements are when Mather realizes she can now take on a free kitten (her husband was allergic) and when she talks about her husband’s fondness for strawberry jam. She does not use this book as an opportunity to look back; instead, she looks forward as she gains in self-sufficiency and strength. I came away from this book wishing I knew her personally and glad she had taught me cookery and personal lessons of living well.

In the last chapter of the book, a friend of Mather’s invites himself and his family to visit Mather. It is a particularly lean season financially but Mather draws from her freezer and shelves a bounty of food and is able to create a feast. She writes of the food she found near her new home, “It provided me with the luxury of having enough to share, even on the spur of the moment, when money was tight and the future uncertain. My life is newly deep and full of riches.” So is this book. I recommend it wholeheartedly.

8. Winterberries and Apple Blossoms by Nan Forler
This book insisted on making my list for two chief reasons: it was responsible for the hands-down best meal I ate in 2011, and Nan workshopped this book in our writers' group. And yet, even if you missed the book launch-ish meal co-sponsored by WordsWorth Books and Nick and Nat's Uptown 21, and even if you didn't watch this book grow, I still recommend it highly to you. The book is comprised of a series of poems that follow a Mennonite girl through a year in which she sits on the fulcrum between childhood and a grown-up world. The book is illustrated by Peter Etril Snyder, Waterloo Region's Mennonite painter, and has as a delicious bonus, a collection of recipes at the end, one corresponding to each month. But it is the delicate, sensitive capturing of that bittersweet time of turning in a girl's life that makes this book so exquisite. As she did with her earlier celebrated book, Bird Child, Nan brings a beautiful and genuine awareness of the emotional life of a child in this book. Winterberries and Apple Blossoms can be savoured by people of all ages -- and ought to be.

9. The Watcher by Sara Davidson
I once asked writer Joseph Boyden what made a novel work. He said that a good novel makes a promise to the reader in the first chapter and fulfills it by the end. On that basis, The Watcher is a very good novel.

I am not always the biggest fan of Christian fiction, even though I firmly share the faith behind many of the novels. The reason for this is two-fold: oftentimes, such stories are message-driven and often, good intentions are stronger than good writing. By contrast, Guelph writer Sara Davison’s debut novel The Watchers is extremely well-written with a suspenseful plot that hooked me from the very first to the very last page.

The greatest strength of this novel is its narrative voice. Davison and her narrator are utterly confident, even masterful. The narrator speaks directly to the reader and his or her identity is not known until the last page. While the story moves back and forth in time over a twenty year period, this is done with tremendous skill, allowing for a slow reveal of a devastating story.

I was reminded at times of the novel that was popular a year or two ago, The Shack in both the subject matter and the themes of grace and forgiveness, but I also saw elements that reminded me of John Bunyan, CS Lewis and more. At the same time, this is a contemporary, Canadian suspense novel with a mystery and a thriller dimension to it.

The Watcher takes place over the span of six days. During this time, both the narrator and the main character, Kathryn, must come to terms with the horrific event that defined her life twenty years before, so that she can finally be free of its effects and move on to a happy future with the man she loves.

I suppose there were a few improbabilities or coincidences to create a perfect storm of tension, but I was able to suspend my disbelief to go along for the ride. The one element that continued to ring a little too-good-to-be-true for me was the intense, ongoing attraction between Kathryn and Nick, the man who has waited for many years to be with her; in real life, I think such sustained and unattained passion would have wilted. I also hoped for a slightly different ending to the novel, but only slightly.

This is a fine first novel and I will be very excited to read more from Sara Davison.

10. Plain Kate by Erin Bow
My writers' group has an embarrassment of riches: not only is Nan Forler in the group but so is Erin Bow. Plain Kate was published in late 2010 but has continued to be recognized throughout 2011, and very deservingly so: Erin won the TD Canadian Children's Book Award this fall for this book. Erin is a poet and it is the language that swirls around in Plain Kate that creates as much a spell as the forms of magic within the plot. And there's an amazing cat. This book does not avoid the dark side of the world but young adult (and adult) readers will savour this book throughout, and will root for this fine heroine.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Susan, for including my book, The Watcher, in your top ten list. I'm thrilled and honoured, and very grateful for the support and encouragement. I am also motivated to go out and get my hands on some of the other books on this list - they all sound amazing. I wish you and your family a very blessed Christmas and a happy new year!