Friday, January 07, 2011
Best Books I Read in 2010
George Elliott Clarke is a master of story and language; Whylah Falls is drama in guttural verse, suspenseful and rhythmic to the last page.
Our world is losing cultural diversity as fast as it is losing biological diversity. In The Wayfinders, Davis eloquently tells the story of what we're losing, and how it will cost us more than we know, based on decades of work with hunter-gatherer peoples in regions across the globe.
Thomas F. Pawlick is an Ontario farmer and investigative journalist. His writing sears with anger, fueled by frustration at the amalgamation of the food industry into a giant, unhealthy, unsustainable corporate funnel, squeezing out the traditional, small family farmers in the process. He tells his story from their perspective.
After reading the Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan I can better appreciate why he's a hit with foodies, environmentalists and word nerds. This is the history of our relationship with four distinct foods, told with an astute sense of wonder. Those stories illuminate what it is to eat, how we're doing this simplest of life functions wrong, and what we have to gain from food thoughtfulness. Fiction:
Tariq Ali wrote the best analysis of religion and politics I've ever read (Clash of the Fundamentalisms) so I was anxious to begin his Islam Quintet with Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree. It didn't disappoint. The writing is straightforward and formal, perhaps to convey the feel of his 1499 setting. It worked well enough and the story, the slow buildup to an inevitable massacre of a culture by an emerging colonial empire, was riveting. They ending was horrifying, but true to history.
I didn't realize how funny Philip Roth was until this year. The closest book I can think of to Portnoy's Complaint is Lenny Bruce's autobiography. If you're wondering, his complaint is the 20th-century New York Jewish condition, particularly with respect to family.
As I wrote on the Advent Book Blog: Halifax has been largely overlooked in Canlit (excluding books on lighthouses and the Halifax Explosion) but it is a vibrant city, and more multicultural than most Canadians realize. Anna Quon’s Migration Songs tells the story of a Chinese-Canadian woman’s hyphenated experience, her search for place and meaning to counter her overwhelming sense of detachment.
Kenneth Oppel has written a lot of young adult fiction, and I guess Half Brother fits that category. But as a 35-year-old fascinated by human-other animal interactions I couldn't put it down. Although it was a plot-first story of a teenage boy whose university-prof parents "adopt" a chimp and raise him as a human, I think Oppel's subtle analysis of how we exploit animals in our misguided attempts to better understand ourselves is spot on.
In satirizing Soviet Communism's "New Soviet Man" Bulgakov was, perhaps unwittingly, satirizing civilization itself, and the false believe that we can rise above our animal impulses. This bizarre story (a novella really) of a mangy dog cum revolting man via mad science turns the whole notion of humans residing on a higher plane than other animals on its ear.
Chad Pelley has said he specializes in literary page-turners, and that's certainly the case with Away from Everywhere, his debut novel. It's a heartbreaker that explores the depths of human folly and then, spurred on by schizophrenia, goes even deeper into despair. Yet, to borrow from Leonard Cohen, his losers have the beauty to buoy the reader through the pain of empathizing with people who are destined to fail.
Ian Holding's first novel, Unfeeling, is a taut, horrifying read about white Zimbabweans desperately clinging to their farms as a brutal and corrupt government reclaims the land for black citizens. The work would have greatly benefited from more diverse perspectives - i.e. that of black Zimbabweans. But it gives the perspective it gives very well; it is a perfectly paced, complete story with well-timed reveals, and a fully engaging read.
Descant's prison issue is just that: an issue of a literary journal, but it's so good I had to include it. [Full disclosure: I have an essay in this one, which may bias me, but whatever, this issue really was amazing and you should read it.] It includes fiction, creative non-fiction, illustration, poetry and essays, and I don't think a single one was a miss. A diverse array of perspectives is provided, from short-timers, mass murderers, drunk tank delinquents and academic outsiders. Hurricane Rubin Carter writes of how he spent much of his sentence in "the hole," completely isolated and cut off from humanity. But it isn't all bleak - the resilience of prisoners shines through nearly every page.
If you are interested in good fiction on the Soviet Union, I recommend Children of the Arbat by Anatoli Rybakov. There are three books: the second is called Fear and I wasn't able to get the third one; by the time I heard of it, it wasn't in print. However, with Amazon peddling used books, it may be available again. I have never forgotten the horrid depictions of Russian life. The characters are well-conceived as it deters into a plot line in which one joins the KGB, one is declared an enemy of the state and one just tries to survive. Good stuff.
You can get them from other sellers.
When I read an earlier version of Portnoy's Complaint in Partisan Review, it was titled Whacking Off.
I did a double-take. What?
But it was pretty hilarious literature, actually.
Glad to see it's still around.
...And us wankers too, in our literary efforts. :)
Ivan: we are survivors, we literary wankers.
X: If you prefer nonfiction I highly recommend the Clash of Fundamentalisms. Amazing book.
Toast: you won't be disappointed.