Margaret Elphinstone is a Scottish novelist. Her most recent work is The Gathering Night.
The most engaging and meaningful book I read in 2012 was The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying, by Sogyal Rinpoche. Riponche is actually an honorific title, rather than a family name, and means “precious one,” or teacher. This is one of the clearest books on Buddhism I have read. Sogyal Rinpoche conveys the philosophy of Buddhism, the deep significance of one’s teachers and the manner in which we should approach our dying. Although I do not subscribe to the idea of reincarnation, which occupies a portion of the book, there is a great deal to appreciate here about the impermanence of earthly phenomena and the causes of mental suffering. Rinpoche also includes practical discussions about how to meditate. Most wonderful are Rinpoche’s personal reflections on his own teachers. I can almost guarantee that anyone who reads this book will come away with a heightened sense of life and how to live.
Alan Lightman is a physicist and writer, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the author of Einstein’s Dreams and, most recently, Mr g.
My favourite book of 2012 is the graphic memoir Are You My Mother?, by Alison Bechdel. It’s very funny and deeply moving and piercingly intelligent. The drawings are stunning and full of information, and the story is about Bechdel’s career as an artist, her life as a lesbian and her relationship with her complicated mother. Bechdel is also the author of Fun Home, a graphic memoir about her late father, a closeted homosexual and funeral director who killed himself shortly after Bechdel came out as a lesbian. I really love and admire Bechdel’s style and her unrelenting unlayering of truths and half-truths and lies. She is as critical of herself as she is of her mother, but part of the magic of her writing, and her unremitting probing of all that family stuff, is that it doesn’t result in bitterness or mockery but a deeper expression of love and understanding.
Miriam Toews’s most recent novel is Irma Voth.
Brian Fawcett’s Human Happiness: A Memoir takes a conventional genre, the family history, to a whole new place. Fawcett has been bending genre-boundaries for a quarter-century, ever since Cambodia: A Book for People Who Find Television Too Slow (1986). Here, he takes a Theseus-like journey into the labyrinth of family identity. Human Happiness asks the questions of and about one’s parents that we always forget to ask until it’s too late. Fawcett’s reflections on memory, relationships, writing and the eponymous topic of happiness transform local matters into a wise meditation on life and death.
If your book of the year turns out to be, as mine does, one written by a long-time friend, then you’re obligated not only to make a disclosure statement but probably to get a second opinion as well. I cajoled the students in the “philosophy and literature” course I teach at Capilano University to read Human Happiness. The campus critics’ verdict? A pretty much unanimous collective rave. As with many good books in these days of the decline of serious book-reading, this is one that deserves more attention than it’s received.
Stan Persky’s most recent book is Reading the 21st Century.
In On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths, poet Lucia Perillo surveys the body’s betrayals with such whip-smart precision, the effect is a startling pleasure. Even death is jazz in her hands:
… his after’s what I'm buzzed by,
the black slide into nothing (well, someone ought to speak for it).
Or it can come in white – not so much the swirling snow
as the fallen stuff that makes the
with the meadow that it sees.
Julie Bruck won the 2012 Governor-General’s Award for poetry for Monkey Ranch.
For me, it’s Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain. Brittain, a nurse, lost her fiancé, Roland, her two best friends from Oxford, and finally her beloved brother Edward in the First World War. By the end of the war, she wrote, there was no one left to dance with. The war, Roland wrote in a letter to Vera, “distilled all youth and joy and life into a fetid heap of hideous putrescence.” Testament of Youth traces a journey from innocence through horror, agony to revelation. It is to my mind the most poignant and heartrending memoir to emerge from the Great War.