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.

Murder and mayhem in Munro country

November 17, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

People Live Still in Cashtown Corners. Tony Burgess; $14.95 paper 978-1-926851-04-4, 204 pp., ChiZine Publications.

“I want all [of my books] to be read,” Tony Burgess told Quill & Quire reporter Juliet Waters, “but I think there’s some value in shaking off some types of readers. So you distress them a little early in the book so they don’t keep going.” Burgess has built a career writing about zombies and psychotics and other assorted mayhem afflicting small-town southern Ontario, so it’s not hard to imagine ways in which he might “distress” a reader. But while his new novella contains its share of gore and graphic violence, this is not what is immediately distressing about the narration in the early stages of the story.

What is distressing is apparent in the opening sentence:

There is a point at which you find yourself, where, and this is not just what I think but this is the way we are designed to think and it’s this: if the entire universe, and I mean every corner of every atomized corner of infinity; if everything that is isn’t aware of or doesn’t understand my most inconsequential, half-formed thoughts, then there is no chance that the highest-formed acts by the noblest mind are greater than gross self-love.

The speaker here is Bob Clark, the proprietor of a gas bar in Cashtown Corners, and the town’s only resident. Within a handful of pages, Clark will have accosted one of his customers and dragged her body back into his trailer, a sequence that is juxtaposed with Clark imagining himself a passenger on one of the September 11 planes when it crashes into the World Trade Center.

Note the movement in this brief opening chapter. The first sentence is impossible to parse, although it is not unintelligible. Burgess employs a kind of faux-rococo syntactical structure that reminds one of H.P. Lovecraft, another writer who took great pains to “distress” his readers. The sentence pretends to a kind of philosophical grandeur, but its mangled syntax results initially in confusion: a reader has to reread the sentence three or four times before its meaning begins to bleed through.

This fractured opening is immediately followed by the first act of violence in the book, an act that appears out of nowhere, and does not even seem rational on its surface. Clark witnesses the woman leave the pumps at the gas station, then stop at the town’s lone intersection, where she waits through several cycles of the light. While she waits, Clark approaches the car, opens the driver-side door and yanks the woman to the pavement. His reason for doing this? “I am not a sentimental man. I am not a particularly empathetic man. But the light has gone from green to orange and she waits.” This is followed by an extended reverie of September 11 – of the plane nosing the skyscraper “like a baby whale floats to its mother’s side and pushes its nose against her as if to say, ‘I’m here, mom'” – by which point it is easy to imagine certain readers having been “shaken off.”

For those who persist, several more murders follow (including a random killing in a grocery store parking lot, the murder of a police constable, and the slaughter of an entire family in its home), and toward the end of the book we are provided with a more comprehensible explanation for Clark’s actions:

I used to have trouble around people. All of my life I had trouble. I struggled to know what to say. I would get dizzy and my head would shatter to pieces. And that’s what happened to me.

Clark admits to being unable to see people’s faces, visualizing them instead as a patchwork of indefinable scribbles. “It’s not much of an explanation,” he says, but on a psychological level his discomfort with conventional society does provide a reader with an answer to the question of why he commits such horrible acts.

Of course, readers who are put off by the contradictions and confusion of the opening chapter will not make it to the explanation, or to the more supernatural final stages of the book, when one of Clark’s victims is reanimated and the two engage in a bizarre debasement of a domestic relationship – the only kind of close human interaction Clark seems capable of. This is entirely consistent with Burgess’s method: by “distressing” his readers up front, he ensures that those who are willing to complete the journey know what they are in for.

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that Cashtown Corners is a work of exploitation, or a simple genre entertainment. Burgess uses the conventions of horror fiction to craft a deeply serious fable about human connection and the discordant consequences that can result from an inability to successfully integrate into the conventions of polite society. In this regard, Burgess numbers Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner among his literary progenitors.

Strange as it may sound, it is also possible to draw a connection between Burgess and Alice Munro: both are interested in the barely constrained discontent that seethes beneath the carefully constructed veneer of small-town Ontario. Where Munro finds sexual infidelity and emotional repression, Burgess finds violence and bloody death; in both cases, the authors are concerned with what happens to people who are forced to deny their essential selves and cleave to an artificial and conformist way of life.

In Burgess’s hands, Cashtown Corners becomes the dystopian reflection of Munro country, and Bob Clark the rampaging id stalking through it. The moments of tenderness in the book’s final stages are as unexpected as they are poignant, and should satisfy readers who have the stomach or the sensibility to make it that far.