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