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Book

45 notable book lovers share their best reads of 2012 Add to ...

From contemporary fiction to classic literature, from poetry to visions of the apocalypse, from history writ large to memoirs writ small, here’s what moved, challenged and provoked a distinguished selection of book-lovers.

HILARY MANTEL

When I was a law student I used to enjoy reading those gruesome Victorian shipwreck cases in which survivors are tried for murder after eating the cabin boy. I thought there was a novel in them, and Charlotte Rogan has (more or less) fished it out. The Lifeboat deals with an Atlantic shipwreck in 1914, and the narrative is in the hands of the unscrupulous Grace, who survives, but finds herself forced to explain how she has done it. It is an accomplished and smart first novel, which plays with narrative and moral ambiguity to gripping effect.

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My non-fiction book of the year is Hallucinations, from the reliably wonderful Oliver Sacks. As a young doctor, he reveals, he experimented with drugs, only a little deterred by hallucinating the battle of Agincourt; what he was really looking at was the sleeve of his dressing gown. Whether dealing with his own visions or those of his afflicted patients, Sacks brings his spirit of courteous and precise enquiry to the most bewildering workings of the human imagination.

Hilary Mantel this year won her second Man Booker Prize, for Bring Up the Bodies, a sequel to Wolf Hall.

RICHARD FORD

Philip Larkin: Letters To Monica, edited by Anthony Thwaite. I don't usually like reading writers’ letters. Too much smirky, arty, self-betraying lack of authenticity, owing to an arch awareness that “letters are literature, too.” Larkin's letters, however – written between the early fifties all the way to the seventies, near the time of his death, and addressed to his principal love interest, Monica Wood – reveal the poet as grippingly as his poems do: amusingly domestic, brilliant beyond the point of lucky cleverness, ambitious, devious, incorrigibly literary, observant, by turns loving and patronizing to Ms. Wood, occasionally mean-spirited but almost always hilarious about it; bleak, scathingly self-aware and almost always dead interesting. Larkin was somebody you might’ve liked as a neighbour, but only if you didn't have to know him all that well, and could focus instead on his superb poems – the likes of which weren't really equalled in the last century. For those, such as I, who don't like snooping into writers’ supposedly private letters, this might be worth making an exception.

Richard Ford’s most recent novel is Canada.

PETER STOTHARD

After reading 145 novels this year as chair of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction, my books of the year can only come from that pile. But not from the 12 long-listed or six short-listed books. They have had praise enough already. So I want to offer three novels that did not make the Man Booker cut but stay very strong in my memory of an extraordinary year for fiction. First: Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway, a London tale of mud, magic and a bid for global domination through the agency of golden bees. Second: Mountains of the Moon, by I.J. Kay, a debut of powerful, original prose about a woman piecing together her life with a new name after a prison sentence. Third: This is Life, by Dan Rhodes, the best light book of the 145, starring a baby called Herbert who is temporarily acquired in Paris through an accident of contemporary art.

Peter Stothard is editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

BRUCE McCALL

I fought my way upstream against the torrent of the new and the hyped, all the way back to 1937 and John P. Marquand’s The Late George Apley, prompted by the vague suggestion of a lit-junkie friend which was acted upon in a rare (for me) oh-what-the-hell moment. This now-forgotten novel earned Marquand the Pulitzer Prize, and I wonder if the committee sensed that it would prove to be time-proof, because this ironic chronicle of the life of a late Boston Brahmin in the first half of the 20th century – told by a friend and observer, with everything meaningful sneaked in between the lines of his diligent whitewashing of Apley’s life – comes at you with none of the mustiness one would expect of an American novel written 76 years ago. The poor, wretched, late Mr. Apley, trapped within the suffocating social constrictions of the Back Bay upper class and unable to experience a spontaneous moment, never manages to find anything like happiness despite his secure social standing, a “perfect” marriage and everything else due an American aristocrat. What counts in his life is what didn’t happen. I can’t help thinking that if Tom Wolfe had been forced to read The Late George Apley before beginning his latest extravaganza of glazed surfaces and comic-strip characters, it would have been one-fourth as long and 14 times better.

Bruce McCall’s most recent book is 50 Things To Do With a Book (Now That Reading is Dead).

ADAM GOPNIK

Two books haunted me this year, as unlike each other as is humanly possible, but related by – well are they related? First, was Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence Between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, published a couple of years ago but percolating to the surface of the world, or at least to my own attention, just now. Circumstances had me travelling back and forth to a collaborator’s studio on a train this year, and I found these letters to be the most perfect of companions. Bishop is straitened, melancholy, modest and enormously observant of the world; Lowell is funny, dissolute, by turns grandiose and depressive, and hugely observant of himself. (If you want to see the exchange as a perfect romance of male and female, if one carried out at the highest level of poetic invention, you have every reason to do so.) It’s a love story related in letters, and has the added fillip of having changed meaning over time: Lowell’s major-ness is taken for granted by both of them, and only in retrospect does Bishop seem the more perfect poet.

The other, utterly unlike book, was Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe. A dry-seeming study of why it was exactly that New York City, 30 years ago a circle in a modern inferno, became as safe as suburban Ottawa, the books posits a hugely important and widely applicable theory of urban life. What the New York City police did was not to alter anything big, but to apply a thousand small sanities to the pursuit of crime. They harassed drug dealers, broke up drug markets, lit dark corners of the subway and, yes, frisked and searched young kids who seemed likely muggers. They built small barriers against crime and these turned out to construct an unclimbable wall against it. The moral is that very small ameliorative changes can have disproportionate effects on the quality of urban life. Discouraging crime is essentially as effective as destroying it. This is a central liberal belief – that building a better sewer is as valuable as building a better man – and it is nice to see it reaffirmed. Any thing in common among these two books? Perhaps the encouraging thought that very small human efforts, in poetry or policing, could have very loud echoes in the world.

Adam Gopnik is a Canadian writer living in New York. His most recent book is The Table Comes First: Family, France, and the Meaning of Food.

JOYCE CAROL OATES

First published in 1818, very possibly the most famous debut novel in English, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Or, The New Prometheus has never been out of print. Far fewer people have read this somewhat difficult and didactic novel than know, or think that they know, who “Frankenstein” was; long ago, the grotesque figure of Dr.Frankenstein’s Monster became detached from its literary context, as from its creator. Highly recommended is The Annotated Frankenstein, edited by Susan J. Wolfson and Ronald Levao, who seem to know, between them, all that there is to know about Frankenstein, including his myriad cinematic metamorphoses over the decades.

Joyce Carol Oates is the author of many books, most recently the novel Mudwoman.

A.L. KENNEDY

I would completely and thoroughly recommend Vultures’ Picnic: In Pursuit of Petroleum Pigs, Power Pirates, and High-Finance Carnivores, by Greg Palast. It’s a passionate, funny, honest and – in every sense – revealing work. It’s a truly world-changing book about how things really work: Why Greece is really broke, why Africa stays in purgatory, why we all need to wake up and smell something which is much less palatable than coffee.

A.L. Kennedy’s most recent novel is The Blue Book.

RAJ PATEL

If you’re reading this, the chances are that we didn’t fall off the edge of the Mayan calendar into the screaming abyss. The apocalypse isn’t now. For many on the left and the right, though, it can’t come soon enough. After The End – whether brought about by climate change or immigration or civilizational collapse – the catastrophists will inherit the Earth, or what’s left of it.

Which is why Sasha Lilley, David McNally, Eddie Yuen and James Davis, the authors of Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth, have done us a great favour. Theirs is an incisive dissection of end-times thinking, and an indictment of those who, rather than tackling the serious problems the planet faces, would rather sit and wait.

Economist Raj Patel’s books include Stuffed and Starved and, most recently, The Value of Nothing.

SHEILA HETI

Debt: The First 5,000 Years. I can’t think of anyone who shouldn’t read David Graeber’s paradigm-shifting book on the ethics of debt. He’s an anthropologist and one of the Occupy movement’s greatest thinkers. Here, he shows how debt has been a central economic, political and social tool throughout human history. It’s an essential read, particularly for those who, in the wake of the financial crisis, believed we were at the beginning of “an actual public conversation about the nature of debt, of money, of the financial institutions,” and were stunned not to see that conversation happen.

The best new work of fiction I read this year was Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead, which I reviewed for this newspaper. It is not only the story of a young woman’s discovery of sex, but about how, through it, she learns about politics, race and oppression. Berger vividly shows how sexuality can be a portal to the real world away from one’s home and place of protection, and that the dangers of sex are twinned with the dangers of enlightenment – not to be avoided. She’s an exciting and important writer.

Sheila Heti’s most recent book is the novel How Should a Person Be?

THEODORE DALRYMPLE

In Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty, and the Mad-Doctors in England, Sarah Wise recounts 12 cases of wrongful detention in Victorian England by alienists (as psychiatrists were then called), usually at the behest of the patient’s family for the most sordid of reasons. The stories are so arresting and well-told that one is transported across time; many of the cases aroused public passion, raising deep questions of the proper scope of personal freedom and social control. This is social history at its best, illustrating the general by means of the particular.

Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name of Anthony Daniels) is a writer and retired prison psychiatrist, author most recently of Farewell Fear, a collection of essays.

ROBERT HOUGH

I really like the kind of book that tracks a remarkable life from cradle to grave, the whole time seducing the reader into trying to understand what the purpose of existence is. One of the best is Any Human Heart, by William Boyd, all the more so because the central figure is male – a growing rarity in an industry that falls all over itself trying to please female readers. By the time I got to the end, I was reminded of that scene in Spinal Tap, in which the dufus rock stars gaze at Elvis Presley's grave. “Kind of puts things into perspective,” says one. “Yeah,” says the other. “A little too much perspective if you ask me.”

Robert Hough’s Dr. Brinkley’s Tower was short-listed for the 2012 Governor-General’s Award for fiction.

MARGARET ELPHINSTONE

Three British expeditions entered Tibet in the early 1920s, aiming for the first ascent of Everest and culminating with the enigmatic disappearance of Mallory and Irving in 1924. Wade Davis’s monumental Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest., is basically a saga of exploration and mountaineering, but Davis sets it in the context of the times. He scours letters, journals and archives across the world and traces the prewar origins of the Everest obsession to adventurers in British India and the young elite of Britain’s class-ridden Alpine Club. Both groups were seared by the horrors of the Great War.

Davis argues that the pursuit of Everest was an act of imperial redemption after the disasters of war, and gives a fascinating account of how the expeditions were planned, funded, staffed, led and executed. These men were stoical beyond imagining, eccentric to the point of caricature, capable both of petty snobberies and mystical awareness. Davis’s huge achievement is to make the reader imaginatively experience what it was like to be them. One is there with them on the mountain, compulsively caught up in their adventure as it unfolds. No participant emerges as more complex than Mallory, complete with his anti-colonial prejudices. Of Oliver Wheeler, the brilliant Canadian cartographer on the 1921 expedition, Mallory notes: “Wheeler I have hardly spoken to, but you know my complex about Canadians. I shall have to swallow before I like him, I expect. God send me the saliva.”

Margaret Elphinstone is a Scottish novelist. Her most recent work is The Gathering Night.

ALAN LIGHTMAN

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.

 

MIRIAM TOEWS

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.

STAN PERSKY

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.

JULIE BRUCK

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
mind continuous
with the meadow that it sees.

Julie Bruck won the 2012 Governor-General’s Award for poetry for Monkey Ranch.

WADE DAVIS

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.

Wade Davis is Explorer in Residence at the National Geographic Society. His books include The Serpent and the Rainbow and Into the Silence: The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest.

SARAH POLLEY

The Iron Bridge, a collection of short stories by Anton Piatigorsky that takes us deep into the adolescent psyches of boys who will one day become brutal dictators (everyone from Pol Pot to Hitler), is one of the best books I’ve read in years. I can’t remember the last time a book held my attention so intensely. Piatigorsky’s writing is funny, disturbing, heartbreaking, tender and terrifying, often in the same paragraph. It is a brazen idea that is brilliantly, thrillingly executed. (Bonus Tip: I recommend not reading this book while breastfeeding. Generally it’s best to save books about how dictators become dictators for times when you are not lactating – this is something no one told me.)

Sarah Polley is an actor and director. She most recently directed Take This Waltz and the documentary Stories We Tell.

CATHERINE GILDINER

Intrigued by all the talk that Philip Roth might win the Nobel Prize, I reread all of his books this year and found one I hadn’t read and loved called Sabbath’s Theater. Roth is at his best when being outrageous and Sabbath’s Theater is every bit as outrageous as Portnoy’s Complaint and just as funny in parts.

Mickey Sabbath, is an adult finger puppeteer in his sixties and a self-confessed “whoremonger, seducer and sodomist, abuser of women, destroyer of morals and ensnarer of youth.”

What works best is that the sex in the book is so layered. Although tawdry, it always has a grief-stricken longing for intimacy and a feeble attempt at warding off death. Of course, this is what we are all striving for, so in the end the reader, somewhat reluctantly, identifies with porno sage Sabbath. Only Roth could manage to make us feel at one with such a debauched character. No wonder the novel won the 1995 National Book Award.

Catherine Gildiner’s most recent book is the memoir After the Falls.

WILL FERGUSON

Walls: Travels Along the Barricades, by Marcello Di Cintio, elevates travel writing to the highest level of literary non-fiction. Di Cintio brings us face-to-face with the walls that divide us: in Belfast, in Cyprus, in India and North Africa, along the U.S.-Mexico border. A provocative yet reasoned work, it offers both a sweeping look at global forces and an intimate portrayal of the people who live along the barricades that are as much cultural, economic and religious as they are physical. A remarkable book by one of the finest young travel writers working today.

Will Ferguson’s novel 419 won the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

JOHN POLANYI

Anthony Trollope writes novels the way a scientist would like to pursue science – passionately, obsessively and forever. But, I have not known a scientist who went into the laboratory from 5 a.m. until eight, so as to be ready for a second-full-time job that began at nine (Trollope worked at the post office). Quite a number can match his appetite for work, but only the very first rank can match his inventiveness.

This paean comes after reading, in sequence, the first three books about the Palliser family, falling in and out of love, going in and out of parliament, and remaining in debt. The titles are: Can You Forgive Her?, Phineas Finn and The Eustace Diamonds, each a gripping 700 pages; all from 1864-1873.

To spend this amount of time in Trollope’s company is the ultimate Christmas party. The guests are fascinating and your host never leaves your side, giving the impression of total frankness, all the time leaving you in suspense. He is sexist, racist and rotten with prejudice (things have improved), but an incomparable storyteller, engaging in vicious parody one moment and having you close to tears the next.

The chief complaint against Trollope was that he wrote too much. He couldn’t be any good. Trollope overheard this complaint at his club, and at once started trimming his manuscripts. Thank God he didn’t trim them much.

John Polanyi teaches at the University of Toronto. In 1986, he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry.

COLM TÓIBÍN

The Atlas of the Great Irish Famine is an enormous book, like an encyclopedia, containing superb maps and illustrations and with essays by the best modern scholars on all aspects of the disaster that shaped modern Ireland.

The Arriére-Pays, by the French poet Yves Bonnefoy (in a wonderful translation by Stephen Romer), is a prose meditation on the idea of place and dream-place, on choices and chances, on language and the self and, indeed, the soul. It is work of extraordinary seriousness, density and beauty.

Canada, by Richard Ford, has a depth of feeling in the rhythms of the prose and the way in which both characters and events are plotted that makes the book stay in your mind as a sort of living, glittering entity. John Lanchester’s Capital is filled with a sense of contemporary London as a place in which money moves likes a poisonous plant, choking whole streets and communities.

Irish writer Colm Tóibín’s most recent novel is The Testament of Mary.

ANDREW PRESTON

Fredrik Logevall’s Embers of War is a stunning book. It’s the first comprehensive English-language history of the “first” Vietnam War, which raged from 1946, when France tried to reclaim its Southeast Asian colonies, to 1954, when the Viet Minh guerrilla army defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu. As such, it’s a supremely valuable resource for historians. But even more, it’s an absolutely gripping account of France’s political and military mistakes in Vietnam – and how the United States repeated them.

My other history book of the year, Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, also takes us right up to the brink of America’s war in Vietnam. This is the fourth of a projected five-volume biography of Lyndon B. Johnson, and it’s hard to imagine anyone topping this achievement in historical writing. Half of the book covers Johnson’s time in political purgatory – otherwise known as the vice presidency – and half examines the assassination of JFK and LBJ’s transition to president. Caro is such a gifted storyteller that putting The Passage of Power down is much more difficult than picking it up. But aside from being an absorbing read, it has countless brilliant insights into American politics and human nature.

Andrew Preston’s most recent book is Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy.

LEAH HAGER COHEN

For all the wonderful books that have been published in 2012 – and by any account, it has been a banner year – I find myself treasuring above all the idea of the homely, humble book you construct yourself. A book can be almost anything. It can be a piece of paper you pleat like a fan with a single word written on every page. It can be an out-of-date guide book salvaged from the trash, remade by pasting into it images and passages snipped from old magazines. It can be a stack of lottery tickets and theatre tickets and numbered tickets from the meat counter at the store, hole-punched and gathered on a key ring. It can be three autumn leaves tied together with a piece of blue thread.

Ten years ago, my mother made a tiny book for each person in our family, with a single page for every year up until 2012. Each New Year’s Eve we’ve recorded in them brief memories of the previous year, pausing to read aloud, often with laughter or wonder, things we’d written in years gone by. This December 31 we will fill in the final pages of our little books. Then perhaps we’ll make some new ones.

Leah Hager Cohen’s most reecent book is the novel The Grief of Others. She writes the blog Love as a Found Object.

CHARLOTTE GRAY

I’m preparing myself for the tidal wave of First World War books, as the centenary of the outbreak of that brutal conflict approaches in 2014. Military strategy doesn’t engage me, but compelling social and political history does. Adam Hochschild’s To End All Wars brings to life events in the trenches and in Britain. I loved the way Hochschild paid attention to cultural shifts, and the power of protest. In Canada, the 1917 Battle of Vimy Ridge has become a cliché as our “coming of age.” Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King and Canada’s World Wars is the latest tour-de-force by Tim Cook, Canada’s foremost Great War historian. Cook explodes this myth, as he describes how the war nearly tore the country apart, and how Canada emerged from its colonial shell thanks as much to prime minister Robert Borden’s tough leadership as to the weary courage of our troops.

Historian Charlotte Gray’s most recent book is Gold Diggers: Striking It Rich in the Klondike.

ANNA SILK

My favourite book of 2012 was Unorthodox, by Deborah Feldman. In this compelling memoir, Feldman recounts her childhood and teenage years living in the very insular world of the Hasidic community of Satmar in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. I loved reading about her early life and her observations of the world she was in. Her endless curiosity and fascination with literature and marriage fuelled her development into an independent thinker – something that was not a welcome part of her community. The story is about a young woman in a world where she is not allowed to express herself, and her journey out of that world. Two of my favourite lines from the book are, “I struggle to be normal and dream of being extraordinary,” and, “God is no longer my prescription for paradise but an ally in my heart.” Feldman’s vivid writing style allows you to experience her journey every step of the way. It is a great read and an inspiring story of independence, bravery and acceptance.

Anna Silk plays Bo Dennis on the Showcase television series Lost Girl, which opens its third season on Jan. 6.

GREGORY McCORMICK

This year, I rediscovered the work of Christopher Isherwood, particularly The Berlin Stories. With his wry humour and deceptively simple prose, Isherwood presents a complex and dangerous city on the cusp of one of history’s darkest periods, while at the same time focusing on the concerns that most people of any era have in their twenties. The character of Sally Bowles (later she became the inspiration for the play and the film Cabaret) is funny and charming, and the elusive Isherwood character lingers as our observer, giving us only the tiniest glimpses of his true self but exposing all those around him in details that are hard to forget. Rereading Isherwood makes me nostalgic for a time I never experienced – Berlin of the late 1920s – but also glad that I was fortunate to miss those chaotic and tumultuous days.

Gregory McCormick is director of programming for the Blue Metropolis Montreal International Literary Festival.

LAURA PENNY

The best thing I read in 2012 was Moby-Dick. I admit I started reading it this summer out of lingering lit-major shame, but I ended up really enjoying it. I knew it would be great and beautiful and chockablock with maritime lore, but it was also spooky and wry and wise. Since it is, sadly, way too late for poor old Melville to benefit in any way from my enthusiasm, I also adored Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland, Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman and D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story.

Halifax writer and academic Laura Penny’s most recent book is More Money Than Brains: Why School Sucks, College is Crap, and Idiots Think They’re Right.

MICHAEL ONDAATJE

Alice Oswald’s long poem Memorial, based on the deaths of random and mostly unknown soldiers who are barely given more than a line or two in The Iliad, is one of the great books of poetry to appear in the last dozen years or more.

In her introduction, Oswald points out that in Greek lament, “when a corpse was laid out, a professional poet led the mourning and was antiphonally answered by women offering personal accounts of the deceased.” Using this simple male-female choral contrast of how they died and how they are personally remembered – “Iphidamus a big ambitious boy/ At the age of eighteen at the age of restlessness/ His family crippled him with love” – she gives life to these unremembered warriors, the poem moving constantly from “high epic” to “choral lyric.” Most movingly, Oswald sometimes repeats the lyric memory of the life or the death, word for word, so we witness an unstoppable grieving.

Eventually the abruptness of these recreated lives slows, opens out, the refrains echo more often, the remarkable metaphors that should not work (being so contemporary) become emotionally stunning by alluding to present as well as ancient wars. And by the end, when we come finally to a notable death, that of Hector, we see him reduced, just another victim, no different from the unremembered others.

The book is a masterpiece, one of the truly great writings on war, heart-breaking and unforgiving.

Michael Ondaatje’s most recent novel is The Cat’s Table.

IAN BURUMA

To some people, the idea of reading books on an electronic tablet is an abomination, the end of the Gutenberg Age, the death of literature as we know it. In my case, however, it has, as it were, rekindled my taste for the classics. Great Books that I had never read (there are many, many) are there for my delectation at the click of a mouse.

And so, for the first time, I read Melville’s Moby-Dick, and loved it. Then I went on to Joyce’s Ulysses, and loved some of it. Then, in reverse order, to Dubliners, and loved all of it.

Alas, this left little time for contemporary fiction, most of which seems to pale in terms of daring and ambition compared to Melville or Joyce. I will try (and no doubt fail) to catch up next year.

Ian Buruma is a Dutch-born, New York-based writer whose work focuses on Asian, especially Japanese, culture. His most recent book is Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents.

SHILPI SOMAYA GOWDA

In her latest novel, The World We Found, Thrity Umrigar’s talent for deep and evocative writing is on full display. The story is about four women, once the closest of friends, reuniting in the wake of a tragedy. Each woman, as well as the two primary male characters, is drawn in such exquisite detail as to become as real as the living, breathing friend you know best in the world. The strengths, flaws, eccentricities and irrationalities that make up the human condition are portrayed here in layered complexity, all within a page-turning narrative. Umrigar’s characters had me weeping and cheering for them from one page to the next, until the very last page.

Jennifer Egan’s novel in stories, A Visit from the Goon Squad, is an absolute tour de force. Reader opinions are polarized on this book, and I can understand why. Egan takes everything we know about the novel (or short stories, for that matter), and throws it out the window. What she offers us, instead, is a piece of literature that demands attention from the reader; it is perhaps the most interactive work I’ve read. The story does not flow in chronological order, each chapter is written from a different point of view, the themes are not explicit and the narrative arc can be confounding. What we are left with is something that closely resembles life: characters who are authentic to the point of sometimes being unlikeable, linked to one another in tentative and uneven ways. As a writer, I found myself in awe of Egan’s inventive structure and style, but at its core, this remains a story about the big questions: the vagaries of the modern world, the meaning of life and mortality.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda is the author of the novel Secret Daughter.

KATIA GRUBISIC

Is it just me, or is it rare to read a breakup novel from the point of view of a guy (and an ostensibly, behaviourally, not very likeable one at that)? There is nothing especially fantastical or exceptional in the narrative of Patrick Warner’s Double Talk – Violet is rebelling against her well-to-do background, and Brian is a recently arrived, somewhat disillusioned Irish immigrant. They smoke up, marry, grow up, procreate, fall apart. The story is the sad, stormy blundering of a failing marriage, and the very ordinary attempt to recapture, or at least remember, the colours of the early, good love.

The first novel from the muscular, lucid pen of the St. John’s poet was among the small-press surprises on this year's Dublin IMPAC long list, though I came across Warner's fiction after enjoying his poetry. Got to the end, wanted it not to end; how rare that is, when we finish a book disappointed to have the characters wander off with our questions. So much of Double Talk is right on: the place (Dottie's potties? You can trust a town that names its potholes after the mayor), a “budgie-coloured” smoker’s streak, the characters, the description of the “obese giantess” of loneliness, the moving success of formula-feeding a newborn squawler. And especially the well-structured back-and-forthing between youth and adulthood, how we are the same people we start out being, just more so, better and worse. Double Talk is nimbly and subtly and carefully done.

Katia Grubisic is a Montreal writer and translator.

CAMILLE PAGLIA

The book that had the most impact on me this year was Stephen Rebello’s Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, an obscure 1990 book re-released by its British publisher to coincide with the film Hitchcock, starring Anthony Hopkins as the famous director and Helen Mirren as his strong-willed wife. Though roughly based on Rebello’s book, the movie is so flagrantly error-filled that the widow of Psycho screenwriter Joseph Stefano has taken legal action against Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Rebello’s lively book, based on interviews with Hitchcock and other members of the production crew, including the stars of Psycho, is a model of crisp research. Movie-making as a practical art is rivetingly chronicled, from the frustrations of financing to the multitude of technical choices in costuming, sets, camera placement, editing and sound. Hitchcock’s artistic vision and brilliant craftsmanship are splendidly demonstrated, as they are not in the cynical and reductive Hopkins film. Rebello deserves all praise for his meticulous documentation of the creative process of one of the most shockingly influential films in Hollywood history.

Camille Paglia is a professor of umanities and media studies at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Her Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, was just published. She has written a book on Hitchcock’s The Birds.

LINDA SPALDING

I have come to see two books as strange companions to each other. Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary is a literary pieta – the inner musing of the dead Christ’s mother as she is kept in protective captivity near the end of her life. I once visited the small house in Ephesus where she was ostensibly housed. Nearby is the great temple of Artemis, and Tóibín has Mary visiting it and cherishing a small figure of the goddess in the same way women today cherish statues of Mary. The little statue brings Mary her only comfort as she remembers the torture of her son on the cross and recalls the silence that came upon her when she longed to defend him. Ashamed of her passivity, she recounts the selfish escape she made to save herself before he died.

Louise Erdrich, in The Roundhouse, has written a son’s testament. Looking back on his childhood, Joe remembers a nearly murderous attack on his Ojibwa mother, who would not speak for fear of reprisal, and whose silence caused his intense desire to discover the truth she will not tell.

Both narrators are sombre witnesses, recounting the sins they have committed in reaction to events.Mary’s is merely the sin of self-preservation in the face of terror, although she has become secretive and unbelieving while her son’s disciples distort her story for their own ambitious purposes. Trapped by circumstance, she is not unlike Erdrich’s boy turned man, whose life revolves around deep reflection on the revenge he exacted on behalf of a mother who could not speak. One son is murdered. The other is a murderer. But it is the mothers who must be heard.

Linda Spalding’s The Purchase won this year’s Governor-General’s Award for fiction, and was short-listed for Rogers Writers’ Fiction Prize.

BRIAN FAWCETT

It isn’t often a writer in his seventies taps into a new range, but Pinboy, George Bowering’s recent memoir of being a 15-year-old boy in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley, seems destined to become a Canadian classic. Bowering isCanada’s first parliamentary poet laureate, and a writer often tagged as too experimental to reach a large audience. Pinboy is readably entertaining, wise, and frequently fall-down funny; it is certainly his most accessible book, and maybe his best. It has been short-listed for the B.C. National Award for Canadian Non-fiction, and ought to be a shoo-in for the Leacock Medal for Humour.

Tony Judt, who died of ALS in 2010, arguably became the most interesting and galvanizing intellectual in the English language with his magnificent Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Now, in Thinking the Twentieth Century, he, with istorian Timothy Snyder, has produced a posthumous 400-page summary of their conversation about the key issues, intellectual and political, that we face in the 21st century. As the dying Judt’s Boswell for this remarkable conversation, Snyder, whose contrarian Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin (2010) has more new information on what happened in Eastern Europe between 1937 and 1945 than any book in 40 years, plays his role with both sensitivity and acumen – no small achievement, since Judt’s mind, as his body failed, was still moving at astonishing velocities. There is much to be grateful for here, from both writers.

Brian Fawcett’s most recent book is the family memoir Human Happiness.

GUY GAVRIEL KAY

Laurent Binet’s unique, superb HHhH has a title even odder than one of my earlier year-end favourites, Old Filth, by Jane Gardam. The title comes from a phrase in Nazi Germany that translates as: Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich. The novel chronicles the dramatic, too-little-known assassination of Heydrich in Prague in 1942 and the horrific reprisals that ensued. But there have been other tales of heroism and ugliness from the Second World War. What makes Binet's novel distinctive and memorable is his technique and tone. Binet is deeply reluctant to invent personalities for and impute thoughts to the real figures in his tale. And he very directly shares this with us all the way through. This is a book where the author is intensely present. He’ll describe a Himmler and Heydrich meeting, then stop dead and say, “Wait! What am I doing? How do I know what he thought?” In this way he does two things. He makes the reader suddenly aware of how many other books fudge and guess, superimpose the author’s agenda on figures of the past. And, as powerfully, when he reaches the end of the memorable events in Prague, he has banked so much credibility with the reader that the tale becomes not just convincing but unforgettably moving. He interrogates the relationship of fiction to history, and gives us a major fiction and powerful history.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, River of Stars, will be published in April of next year.

LORNA CROZIER

‘It must have felt like this when T.S. Eliot came on the scene,” The Globe and Mail said of Steven Price’s first book of poetry. His second collection, Omens in the Year of the Ox, rivals the power and beauty of the previous book. This poet can write anything, from free verse to sonnets, from prose poems to the blues, from the long-lined laments of a Greek chorus to a series of curses the ancient Irish bards would have envied. Here’s one from the mouth of a midwife: “May your milk be a ribbon of darkness,/ your lullabies a black wind.” People who ask about the future of poetry should read this book. It addresses our contemporary angst and fear, yet the words Price brings to the page shine darkly with the tough, earthy power of Old English, a language that bites into the bone. Though he is an original, it must have felt like this when Seamus Heaney came on the scene, and then again, when he began his brilliant translation of Beowulf.

Poet Lorna Crozier’s most recent book is The Book of Marvels: A Compendium of Everyday Things.

CHRISTY CLARK

You might think I would spend my personal time reading about anything other than politics, but a historical novel about 16th-century English court politics is different enough – and thank goodness for that difference. Henry VIII is famous today for his controversial marriage to Anne Boleyn – a woman who was instrumental in forever changing the face of England and its Church – as well as his five other wives, and for producing another extraordinary woman, his daughter Elizabeth. Yet his own court was heavy with intrigue, world-changing events, murder and, yes, politics.

Success or failure depends in large part upon the people behind the scenes. Henry’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell, was a pivotal figure behind a fascinating and turbulent time, and great fodder for a historical novel.

This is but one reason my personal favourite book this year is Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies. It’s a sequel to her brilliant Wolf Hall, and second of a planned trilogy about the life of Thomas Cromwell. But the most important reason is simply that it’s a great read, one I can’t recommend enough.

Christy Clark is the Premier of British Columbia.

LISA MOORE

I choose books by Three Wise Women. Zadie Smith’s NW is alive alive-o. There’s an intimate voice in these pages and a broad-sweeping vision of a neighbourhood in North West London, full of people of all ages and races and classes, ambitious, lonely, dangerous and unloved.

Smith is brave, willing to try on anyone’s shoes. She does innovative things with form and there’s an emotional winch that pulls the reader through. This novel is full of Smith’s wise-cracking humour, fast, rich sketches of minor characters drawn with all the chiaroscuro shades of light and dark. There’s raunchy sex, friendship between women, the desire to rise above, to get out and, ultimately, the folly of hubris.

Christine Pountney’s Sweet Jesus is the gorgeously written story – every word polished and smart – of three siblings who set off on a journey to the United States, an exploration of belief and faith and family in all its incarnations. The character of Zeus Ortega, who works as a therapeutic clown in a children’s hospital, is so physically present and full of empathy that I don’t think I will ever forget him. Pountney makes him come alive with vividly drawn gestures, witty dialogue and a searching, honest heart.

And though it was published in 1933, I have just read Elizabeth Bowen’s To the North, a sumptuous story of two women who are as close as friends can be. They are fiercely independent and willing to break all the rules for love. The rules were just as stuffy and confining back then as they are now, and it’s fun to see them being crunched underfoot. Bowen has all of Virginia Woolf’s powers of description, reflected light and weather, and an exacting eye when it comes to social mores and foibles. Her characters, like Woolf’s, have a feral desire for freedom from convention, but perhaps she’s more willing to be out-and-out funny.

All three of these books by women are wise about love and sacrifice, what it means to give and not give up.

Lisa Moore’s most recent novel, February, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and the IMPAC Dublin Award.

ROSIE MacLENNAN

When I was asked to write about a book that engaged or moved me this year, a few came to mind. Marnie McBean’s The Power of More is one that speaks about the lessons learned on a journey and reaching your goals. In some ways, it is common sense, but to be able to articulate complex thoughts and break them down is a real skill that resonated with me.

But when I really thought about it, the book that I decided to write about was Alix Ohlin’s Inside, which I was asked to present at this year’s Giller Prize. When I started reading the book, I did not know what to expect, but I was completely engaged and moved by the story, quickly intrigued by how the characters’ stories were intricately intertwined, and the complexity of each character. The book compelled me to be more open and to really look around. I was also intrigued that so much of the story, though very complex, was completely shaped by basic human needs, which made it very real. Each story was different, but there were aspects of each character you could connect and empathize with.

I was really moved by the realization that everything is interconnected: people, choices, interactions; they all shape the path you take. It is human nature to want to have a positive impact or to be a positive influence, though many people question how to have this impact. Life never follows the path you intend. Inside shows that your life is shaped by choices or instinct, following that small voice within that guides you regardless of what rational thought may tell you. Inside showed me that during each interaction or situation you are placed in, the decision you make can shape the path you take in your life and the influence you can have on others.

Rosie MacLennan won the gold medal in trampoline at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

TOM HOLLAND

My book of the year is an intellectual thriller which, because it was written by an academic and published by a university press (Harvard), may not have received due recognition for what it actually is: an absolute page-turner. R.I. Moore's The War on Heresy is ostensibly about the roots of Catharism, and the attempts by the medieval Church to extirpate it. A well-trodden path of enquiry, you might think – except that Moore's thesis is as jaw-dropping as it is original. Far from existing as an independent phenomenon, he argues, Catharism was in truth a phantasm conjured up from the nightmares and ambitions of those who went looking for it. The true begetters of the heresy were not Manicheans mysteriously transplanted from the ancient Middle East to medieval Languedoc, but rather the very men committed to its destruction. The relevance of this for today's world, haunted as it is by its own paranoias and anxieties, hardly needs pointing out. Startling, unsettling and revelatory, The War on Heresy is Homeland in cowls.

Tom Holland’s most recent book is In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World.

KATE BEATON

I was aware of The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt, before I bought it, like you're aware of a train that's approaching the tracks you are presently tied to (you being an unfortunate cartoon damsel). In late 2011, I was on a book tour myself, and at every lit festival I showed up for, people were only a bag of confetti short of throwing a party for how much they liked Patrick deWitt's western. It was winning awards left and right, it was highlighted in every festival program, and several times I overheard someone say the name of the book in conversation while the person they were talking to nodded sagely. In short, I heard it was “pretty good” and when I finally picked it up, it had a reputation to live up to.

The Sisters Brothers did not disappoint. For a story of two ruthless hit men – the eponymous Eli and Charlie Sisters – the story packs a wallop of warmth and humour. DeWitt has a talent for a charming turn of phrase that is impossible not to like. It may be a gritty, violent world that the brothers live in, but it is rich with irresistible characters, conversation and musings on life (also, toothbrushes). It's not that you don’t ever expect a western novel to offer something more than straight-faced good/bad/ugly types pulling guns on each other in grim seriousness. However, when a book is good enough to be a proper western and win the Stephen Leacock Medal for humour on top of that, we're talking about a rare gem indeed. I liked The Sisters Brothers so much that soon after finishing I found myself in front of a cash register to buy many copies for other people, just to do them a favour, like a good citizen.

Kate Beaton is a webcomic artist and the author of Hark! A Vagrant.

DAVID LODGE

Salman Rushdie’s Joseph Anton, his account of living for nine years under the threat of death from the Ayatollah Khomeini’s notorious fatwa, was not the best book I read in 2012, but it was the most essential. It vividly evokes the ordeal of living in hiding with a continuous police escort, the object of murderous threats and vitriolic abuse at home and abroad, and is a salutary reminder of just how serious a threat the fatwa, and the events it triggered, were to the principle of free speech in the age of globalization. It was crucially important that, with the aid of his friends and the support of the British government, Rushdie managed not only to survive without cracking up under the stress, but also to go on writing novels. This book is a valuable record of that achievement.

English writer and critic David Lodge’s most recent novel is A Man of Parts, about H.G. Wells.

MARTIN LEVIN

I read so many good books this year that it’s impossible to choose one. So here are five to conjure with, or, better, read. The first three are all from 2012; the last is older, but timeless. Richard Ford’s cross-border novel of crime and its consequences, Canada, for its gorgeous writing and profound understanding of human motives; George Bowering’s memoir Pinboy, for a truthfully randy romp through adolescent sexuality, real and fantasized, in the 1950s Okanagan; Robert Fowler’s A Season in Hell, a diplomat’s unflinching and uncompromising memoir of being held in captivity for months by an al-Qaeda outfit in North Africa; the great Jane Gardam’s Crusoe’s Daughter, a clever, playful, moving novel about one woman, one house, one not-quite-lonely lifetime in England’s north. Perhaps the most provocative book I read this year was my Globe colleague Carl Wilson’s Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, an entry in Continuum’s wonderful little series on individual albums. In examining his own disdain for the music of Céline Dion, and the disdain of his intellectual cohort, Wilson probes deeply into the questions of taste and judgment, not sparing himself in the process.

Martin Levin is The Globe and Mail’s Books editor.

H.J. KIRCHHOFF

I was late coming to Hilary Mantel’s 2011 Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall, her epic re-imagining of the early life of Thomas Cromwell, in which she tracks Cromwell’s rise from the rural smithy run by his drunken father to his exalted position as position Henry VIII’s adviser, expediter and hatchet-man. But once I started reading it – incongruously, on holiday in Mexico – there was no turning back. Cromwell was the person largely in charge of arranging Henry’s tortuously justified abandonment of his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, and his marriage to wife No. 2, Anne Boleyn. The book is masterly: totally absorbing, perfectly detailed, slyly funny, beautifully written – sentences that make you weep, casually tucked into paragraphs about some other matter altogether – full of sympathetic human characters, including even the nastier ones, and convincingly presenting the political intrigues, sexual entanglements and endless feuds of both court life and international affairs.

Then I had to wait all summer, metaphorically pacing, for the sequel, the equally splendid Bring Up the Bodies (which won this year’s Man Booker Prize, an unprecedented one-two sweep), in which Cromwell must negotiate Anne’s separation from Henry – and from her head.

H.J. Kirchhoff is the deputy books editor for The Globe and Mail.

 

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