Year in Review: 2013


Favourite novels of the year: The Crow Road (Banks) mixes hard-drinking, realistic characters with thoughts like this: “Death was change; it led to new chances, new vacancies, new niches and opportunities; it was not all loss.” I loved the precise language and compelling story of Minister Without Portfolio by Canadian writer Michael Winter. Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (Winterson) is remarkable for being as accessible as it is potent, though some moments were so brief they felt like a sketch, and I wanted more. Rabbit, Run was compelling, though I’m not entirely sure I’ll jump to read the rest of the series, and The Mosquito Coast was an engaging story with a lot of ideas. The Watch that Ends the Night by Hugh MacLennan (who doesn’t seem to be much talked about these days despite winning awards in his day) was a sad, beautiful novel.bridge

As it was two-hundred years old in 2013, I reread Pride and Prejudice and while I get the themes I still find it fairly dull to be perfectly honest. That’s likely a fault in me, not Austen. Lucky Jim, while slightly heavy-handed, was an intelligent and sharply written novel by Kingsley Amis. It’s only looking back on the year I realize I picked up three readable and thoroughly enjoyable novels by Jack London: The Sea Wolf, The Call of the Wild and White Fang. It’s easy to see why he was a popular author in his day, and remains one. I particularly enjoyed The Sea Wolf for the philosophical discussions. My monster-sized novel this year was Bleak House, which I read in a couple of stages. I enjoyed it, but found it hard to be patient with the leisurely way it unfolded, and thought the description arrived in dollops rather than blended into the story.

Non-fiction: Michelle Orange has the kind of intelligent, slightly offbeat and perceptive voice that make for valuable essays in This Is Running for Your Life. The Christopher Hitchens collection Arguably is excellent and covers a lot of ground. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt (Richard Holloway) is a thoughtful and perceptive book: at times I wrote down the titles of the books he recommended, and at other times I made note of direct quotes from Holloway, as when he suggests deeply conservative people are “severely rational,” and unable to loosen “clenched muscles.” So terribly true, and yet not the kind of thing  we’re often easily able to put into words.

Sailing Alone around the World (which dates from 1900) had some great moments of description: “The day was perfect, the sunlight clear and strong. Every particle of water thrown into the air became a gem, and The Spray, bounding ahead, snatched necklace after necklace from the sea, and as often threw them away.” Speaking of older books, I loved Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow by British humourist Jerome K. Jerome, who tends to sound fairly light until the final moments of each essay, when he delivers a heavier, punchy finale that has all the more impact because he’s been so casual up to that point. The Life of Charlotte Bronte, by her friend Elizabeth Gaskell, was outstanding and I wrote a blog post about it (not far below).

Poetry: I found much to admire in books by James Arthur (Charms Against Lightning) as well as Darren Bifford  (Wedding in Fire Country) and Michael Lista (Bloom) as well as books by Amanda Jernigan and Karen Solie. It was great to meet Alexandra Oliver on her tour for Meeting the Tormentors in Safeway, and it’s a skillfully written, intelligent book I’d recommend to anyone. Glad to see Tangle, a full-length collection of poems from the talented Julie Cameron Gray.

Genre fiction: I appreciated the themes and ideas in Something Wicked This Way Comes (Ray Bradbury), but found it somewhat overwritten and heavy with description. It didn’t compare to The Martian Chronicles or Fahrenheit 451. After watching some of the TV films, my first Inspector Morse novel was The Way Through the Woods and it’s certainly superior, even intellectual detective fiction. The collection of stories In a Glass Darkly (Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu) really came alive for me in the last (and longest) story that apparently helped inspire Dracula, but I ultimately enjoyed them all. The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin) is simply one of the best science-ficiton books I’ve ever read.

Favourite music: I have CBC radio to thank for introducing me to the Robert Schumann symphony #2, which is an engaging, balanced and beautiful symphony. With a pair of headphones allowing you to really listen, it’s remarkable. I may have discovered it through Mad Men like so many others, but Tomorrow Never Knows (The Beatles) is a great song, Revolver a great album. I love a couple of new albums of electronica that aren’t the deeply repetitive kind: Immunity by Jon Hopkins and Tomorrow’s Harvest, Boards of Canada. It’s worth hunting around or going on Amazon for The Art of the Theremin (Clara Rockmore), which is a haunting instrument I’ve loved since ever hearing it on the brilliant soundtrack to The Day the Earth Stood Still (Bernard Herrmann).

Film: I know some were disappointed after expecting something in the same spirit as the Christopher Reeve films, but I thought Man of Steel had a pretty good script and was involving as well as impressive-looking. It came perilously close to tiresome with a long, final fight scene but didn’t quite go over the edge. I caught up with a couple of other blockbusters, Skyfall and Star Trek Into Darkness, reviewing them together for Digital Popcorn as I thought one celebrated a legacy well and the other simply mined it. I revisited Vertigo, which remains the most compelling Hitchcock film for me (I’ve only ever seen it twice, to preserve the potency) with Bernard Herrmann composing one of the best film scores ever. If you’ve never sat down with the Criterion release of Modern Times (Chaplin) it’s a brilliant film that looks terrific restored, and the bonus material is fascinating. Lately I’ve been enjoying film serials and reviewed The Phantom with the captivating Tom Tyler in the title role. I’ve seen a handful of film adaptations of Jane Eyre, one of my favourite novels, but finally catching up with the 2011 film, I thought it was the best one since the 1940s adaptation with Orson Welles.


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