Notable books of 2010

December 15, 2010 by · 5 Comments 

Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ into the future, or so the song has it. It is December, which is the time of year for list-making, for looking back on the previous 12 months and cobbling together roundups of the best books, movies, music, etc. Traditionally, December is the time I take stock of how much I haven’t read: how many interesting or well-received titles have slipped by in the crush of work obligations, paid reviews, reading for literary juries and panels. This is not to suggest that these endeavours don’t yield riches, but I’m constantly amazed at this time of year how much I have fallen short of the mark in terms of what I intended to read. At the beginning of October, I compiled a list of eight books I wanted to read if I could find the time. By the middle of December, how many of that octet have I managed to get to? Precisely zero.

Which is not to say that I haven’t been reading: my various professional obligations ensure that I’ve been doing little else. Anyone who reads for a living will inevitably find that much of what gets published is unremarkable: of the thousands of books that are produced each year, any number will be competently executed, even enjoyable, but very few leave a lasting impression. Glancing back over my reading in 2010, I’m struck by how much of it was adequate, but forgettable; how many books were perfectly serviceable, but have not lingered in my memory.

Still, there were some high points. What follows is not a list of the best books of the year, because there’s no way for me to know (have I mentioned how many books I haven’t read from the past year?). Rather, these are books that stayed with me. For whatever reason, these books made an impression.

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod: It’s rare to find a work of fiction that so carefully and lovingly details the specifics of people working. Rebecca Rosenblum’s 2008 collection, Once, did this, and so does Alexander MacLeod’s remarkable debut. The characters MacLeod focuses on are not the recondite aesthetes or romantics of so much CanLit: they are bricklayers and delivery boys, runners and auto mechanics. The details of their exertions are rendered so vividly, with such precision, that a reader comes away from these stories feeling almost physically wounded. MacLeod’s interest in characters at decisive moments in their lives is reminiscent of O’Connor; his ability to evoke entire worlds in the span of 30 pages rivals Munro. Truly one of the most impressive literary debuts in a long, long time.

Kaleidoscope: Selected Poems by P.K. Page: The year got off to a melancholy start; January saw the death of P.K. Page, one of Canada’s towering poets. Page’s longtime publisher, The Porcupine’s Quill, has inaugurated a ten-year scholarly project that will collect all of the poet’s work online, and will be accompanied by a series of print volumes. The first of these, edited by Zailig Pollock, offers a chronological overview of Page’s development as a poet, including work from 1941 right through 2009’s Coal and Roses. The poems in Kaleidoscope are a testament to Page’s wit, erudition, spiritualism, and complete poetic mastery.

Solar by Ian McEwan: McEwan’s “climate change comedy” is a return to form following a group of lacklustre novels. The story of Michael Beard, a slovenly, overweight physicist whose wife has finally left him after a string of infidelities, Solar marries blistering comedy with McEwan’s penchant for cascading ironies, and bundles it all into a fast-paced, tightly constructed narrative.

The Death of Donna Whalen by Michael Winter: Channelling the Truman Capote of In Cold Blood and the Norman Mailer of The Executioner’s Song, novelist Winter crafts a corrosive work of “documentary fiction” from the story of a St. John’s woman who was stabbed to death in her apartment in 1993. Employing a fractured narrative that incorporates police wiretaps, court transcripts, and interviews with the participants, the author builds a collage-like tale of institutional corruption, betrayal, and a brazen miscarriage of justice. Though it’s by no means an easy book, The Death of Donna Whalen is nonetheless one of the most technically ambitious novels I encountered in 2010.

A Hunter’s Confession by David Carpenter: Not so much an apologia for the practice of hunting as an examination of its cultural, philosophical, and spiritual aspects, Carpenter’s book is a heartfelt attempt by an erstwhile hunter to grapple with the conflicting emotions and ambivalence the subject provokes for him. He examines hunting from a variety of perspectives: hunting in literature, women and hunting, the importance of hunting to Native societies. Ultimately, he concludes that there is an unavoidable morality attached to the hunt, and that it is not necessarily contradictory to claim that one is simultaneously a hunter and an environmentalist. Whatever a reader’s personal feelings about hunting, Carpenter’s book represents a serious, thoughtful, and eloquent paean to a way of life that “has fallen out of favor and out of fashion.”

Fishtailing by Wendy Phillips: The high-school novel for young adults is difficult to make fresh; Phillips pulls out all the stops by telling her story in verse and shuffling the perspective between four students and their officious English teacher. Phillips does a remarkable job characterizing the students using only their various voices: Natalie, the manipulative new kid at school; Kyle, the would-be musician; Tricia, the good girl who gets caught up in Natalie’s world of partying and danger; and Miguel, the Central American immigrant struggling to adapt to a world that seems utterly foreign. The teacher, who criticizes Miguel for the violence in his description of a massacre in his home country, is a vivid example of the ways in which adults become entirely disconnected from the concerns of the adolescents they are charged with helping. Phillips won a Governor General’s award for this innovative, provocative novel.

Annabel by Kathleen Winter: This book snuck up on me. By all rights I shouldn’t have liked it, because it includes a number of elements toward which I’m normally antipathetic: a family saga, lyrical writing, a narrative steeped in a sense of place. But Winter’s strong feeling for story, her refusal to reduce her characters to a simple set of binary opposites, and her achievement in creating one of the most memorable fictional fathers in ages set this one apart for me. This story of an intersex child struggling to carve out an identity for himself, and the community that alternately helps and hinders him, is one of the most pleasant reading surprises I had this year.

Fauna by Allisa York: Another novel with a strong sense of place: this time the hidden corners of Toronto’s Don Valley. York’s story of a group of misfits who populate an ad hoc animal shelter in the city’s core showcases the author’s skill with juggling multiple storylines and her facility for crafting beautiful sentences.

People Live Still in Cashtown Corners by Tony Burgess: If David Cronenberg ever adapted an Alice Munro story, it might turn out something like this.

Girl Crazy by Russell Smith: The story of Justin Harrison, a professor at a technical college who becomes obsessed with a younger woman he saves on the street, Smith’s novel shines an often uncomfortable light on the subject of male sexuality and its attendant desires and perils. As Justin spirals deeper into a miasma of lust and desperation, the story becomes increasingly dark, finally releasing the protagonist to pursue a course that can only end badly. Smith’s satiric eye is in fine form here, as is his careful hand in structuring a novel. Part dark comedy, part neo-noir, Girl Crazy is a brisk, bracing book that takes the reader for one hell of a ride. Love it or hate it, you’ll have a hard time forgetting it.

Here comes the sun

March 25, 2010 by · 4 Comments 

Solar. Ian McEwan; Knopf Canada, $32.00 cloth, 300 pp., 978-0-307-39924-3.

There is a sequence in Ian McEwan’s new novel so astounding in its control, so deft in its pacing, so wicked in its ironic inversions, it can effectively stand as a microcosm of all the best elements in the author’s not insubstantial oeuvre. Barely nine pages long, this bravura set-piece involves nothing more exotic or esoteric than a bag of crisps purchased at an airport kiosk. I am not going to describe how this sequence unfolds, because it works best if a reader arrives at it with no prior foreknowledge. Suffice it to say that the scene is a staggering example of why McEwan has been recognized as one of the finest living practitioners of the novelist’s craft. A lesser writer, having created such an impeccable scene, would have felt content to leave it there, but McEwan returns to the bag of crisps story twice more in his narrative, for different reasons and to different effects, each time adding another layer of irony to the telling.

If Solar had nothing else to recommend it, the bag of crisps and its attendant fallout would be more than sufficient to command a reader’s attention. Indeed, most books would not be able to survive such a scene, coming as it does around the narrative’s midpoint: everything afterward would seem like so much anticlimax. But Solar – a galloping and ferocious read more plot-driven than most of McEwan’s recent books – finds the author firing on all cylinders, and should anyone doubt how good he can be when he’s operating at the peak of his powers, this novel should provide the answer: very, very good indeed.

Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, an overweight, slovenly physicist who won a Nobel Prize for what has come to be known as The Beard–Einstein Conflation. He has received honorary degrees, held various university posts and sinecures, but his best work is two decades behind him. When the novel opens, in the year 2000, Beard is 53, “a man of narrowed mental condition, anhedonic, monothematic, stricken.” Beard’s anhedonia is the first of the novel’s many reversals: an inveterate womanizer, he is currently attached to wife number five, and has embarked on 11 affairs during his time with her. “Weren’t marriages, his marriages, tidal, with one rolling out just before another rolled in?” Beard ponders. But his current quandary is bound up with his “stricken” condition: in an attempt to even the score, his wife, Patrice, has embarked on an affair with the builder who has been working on the couple’s home. She is having this affair “flagrantly, punitively, certainly without remorse,” leaving Beard to “[discover] in himself, among an array of emotions, intense moments of shame and longing.”

Shame is not an emotion that McEwan’s protagonist wears comfortably or easily: he is selfish, manipulative, and frequently duplicitous. Having nearly bankrupted the research facility he works for (a government think-tank based on the real-life National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado) by proposing a futile and prohibitively expensive energy-reduction scheme involving domestic wind turbines, Beard hopes to revivify his dormant professional reputation by stealing a plan to use photovoltaics – harnessing the sun’s radiation as a sustainable energy resource – to solve the world environmental crisis. An early climate-change skeptic, Beard has a conversion following his return from an expedition to the North Pole, where he is meant to “see global warming for himself,” and he sets in motion a series of events that will have consequences for both his professional and personal lives.

Solar has been described as a “climate change comedy,” and it is a deeply, profoundly funny book. But the climate change aspects of McEwan’s narrative, and the concomitant background research that has so clearly informed this material, are ultimately less interesting than the human comedy surrounding Beard and his unravelling personal relationships. McEwan’s incisive vivisection of a particularly male impulse toward infidelity at times rivals Roth, and he is merciless in his dissection of one member of “that class of men – vaguely unprepossessing, often bald, short, fat, clever – who were unaccountably attractive to certain beautiful women.” Beard, who is “never a complete cad,” still identifies one lover’s belief “that he could plausibly fit the part of a good husband and father” as “a flaw in her character, like a trapped bubble in a window pane, that warped her view” of him. McEwan has created an unlikable character with whom we nevertheless remain sympathetic, in part because of Beard’s own honest self-awareness: “Like many clever men who prize objectivity, he was a solipsist at heart, and in his heart was a nugget of ice.” Examining himself in the bathroom mirror, Beard is “disbelieving”:

What engines of self-persuasion had let him think for so many years that looking like this was seductive? That foolish thatch of earlobe-level hair that buttressed his baldness, the new curtain-swag of fat that hung below his armpits, the innocent stupidity of swelling in gut and rear. Once, he had been able to improve on his mirror-self by pinning back his shoulders, standing erect, tightening his abs. Now, human blubber draped his efforts. How could he possibly keep hold of a young woman as beautiful as [Patrice] was? Had he honestly thought that his Nobel Prize would keep her in his bed? Naked, he was a disgrace, an idiot, a weakling.

There are readers who will no doubt find such passages unnecessarily nasty, verging on cruel, but such readers would do well to bear in mind the long tradition of body comedy in English literature, both contemporary (see Amis, Martin) and classical (see Shakespeare, William). Indeed, there is a certain Falstaffian quality in Beard’s gluttonous pursuit of physical pleasure, whether it be women, food, booze, or some combination of all three. Moreover, McEwan’s characterization of Beard – his mental acuity and his physical grotesqueness – are central to the author’s approach in the book, which is dependent on the comedic irony that arises from the gulf between scientific objectivity and emotional muddiness.

McEwan’s ironies cut deep and hard. Beard, who becomes a passionate advocate for sustainable energy and environmental awareness, at one point delivering a speech that would make Al Gore sit up and listen, spends much of the novel on planes or in cars, injecting fossil fuels into the atmosphere by the bucketful. In his vast appetites, he is the very embodiment of our modern drive to consume, to hoard, to ingest. His eventual comeuppance is perhaps meant to indicate that humanity cannot go on raping the planet’s resources without paying a price for it down the line. The fact that this message is contained within a frankly comic novel only serves to underline its essential seriousness.