A year in reading
Globe contributors Stacey May Fowles, John Semley and Pasha Malla reflect on their literary experiences of the past year
This year we've been blessed with some incredible non-fiction, my favourite of which has explored the very issues that we culturally have such a hard time writing and talking about.
Diane Schoemperlen took us into the grim realities of the Canadian prison system, and her experience of loving an inmate, with a brave and candid memoir, This Is Not My Life. Lindy West offered a witty, insightful, and often heart-wrenching book of essays with Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, a collection that explores everything from the perils of online harassment, to our pervasive fear of fatness, to her personal experience of having an abortion.
The incisive, poetic rendering of trauma, survival and healing found in Rupi Kaur's Milk and Honey made it by far the most therapeutic book I read all year. I was further grateful for The Art of Waiting, Belle Boggs's generous effort to de-stigmatize the experience of infertility, and to give those who endure it some support and solace along the way. Teva Harrison moved readers with her stunning graphic memoir, In-Between Days, a bighearted depiction of living with metastatic breast cancer, and one that offered much needed hope, wide-reaching comfort, and a necessary perspective on living well.
In the way of fiction, Iain Reid's dark and disturbing thriller, I'm Thinking of Ending Things, certainly kept me up at night. The book is a fast-paced, dramatic departure from his more lighthearted offerings, and one that revealed him to be a true craftsman of the genre.
But my vote for both the best and most important book of the year easily goes to Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People, a timely, Giller-nominated look into issues of sexual violence and the community responses that shape our reactions in its aftermath.
Stacey May Fowles
From 1927 to 1933, the great Dorothy Parker reviewed books for The New Yorker under the nom de plume "Constant Reader." Turning around a book column every week or two or three can certainly make one feel that way. Reading becomes unceasing, as if it were a metabolic function.
When I am between assignments, or otherwise don't have something to read, I feel unmoored. What to do while riding a rattling streetcar, or laid out lazily on the couch, or eased up solo at one of the city's bar-tops? Look at my phone? Good Lord.
I'll remember this past year as one in which this feeling of constancy, the condition of being more-or-less always reading, only deepened. Part of this has to do with my militant policy of reading one book for pleasure for each book I read for work. Apart from the books I enthusiastically reviewed in these pages, I've also had a few highly productive personal discoveries. Among them: W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence, Sylvia Legris's The Hideous Hidden, Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Édouard Levé's Suicide and Rick Perlstein's Nixonland.
This was also the year I began listening to audiobooks. Now, the experience of reading (or "reading") is truly 'round-the-clock. I can read while walking my dog, while washing dishes, while lying in bed attempting to fall asleep.
I don't think I could ever listen to an audiobook of a novel or a piece of actual literature, or anything where the roll and rhythm of the prose is the whole point. But they're a nice complement for heavy history books and make the prospect of actually finishing some tome about Stalin or Nixon much less daunting. I've now become an even more efficient and streamlined bookworm, augmented by earbuds and an Audible account, not just a Constant Reader, but something like the Six Million Dollar Bibliophile.
Suggestions with a heavy heart
In 2016 I was a member, along with Lauren B. Davis and Trevor Ferguson, of the jury for the Rogers Writers' Trust Prize for Fiction. From 135 submissions, we chose a short list of five titles and a single winner, Yasuko Thanh's excellent Mysterious Fragrance of the Yellow Mountains.
Yet, several books that did not make our consensus top five impressed me thoroughly: Kathy Page's Frankie Styne and the Silver Man, Ken Sparling's This Poem is a House, Patrick Warner's One Hit Wonders, Catherine Leroux's The Party Wall, Alice Peterson's Worldly Goods, Iain Reid's I'm Thinking of Ending Things, Andrew Battershill's Pillow, John Goldbach's It is an Honest Ghost, Malcolm Sutton's Job Shadowing, Leon Rooke's Swinging Through Dixie, Eric Plamondon's Hungary-Hollywood Express and David Bergen's Stranger.
If I'm forgetting any books, please forgive me. I'm writing this fresh off a confrontation with two young men who left a Styrofoam swastika on the playground in the park near my house. A "joke," maybe, or a mindless provocation, or a misguided expression of inner turmoil – or maybe, and this seems terrifyingly possible, a pair of actual, real-live racists, green-lit by the election results south of the border to fire a warning shot into our multicultural community.
At any rate, I came in the door intending to write about books at the end of a year that, for most conscientious people, really sucked, and troubled the relevance of such "elitist" practices as reading and writing, not to mention writing about reading and writing, not to mention rudimentary human thought. And while the cycle is familiar enough – moral degradation, existential crisis, bolstered belief in the "things that matter" – I'm offering these suggestions with a heavy heart. Because, these days, every time I point my face into a book, it seems less to enrich or educate or even mollify myself, but simply to avoid looking at the world outside.