Year in Review: 2015
My son’s arrival would obviously count as my favourite moment of the year, and I’ve tried to mentally photograph his endearing, nearly ongoing, fairly baffled expression. But I’m sure you’re here to read about something a little more applicable to your life, so let’s get to the books, film and TV.
Assorted bears, decades apart: Bear (Marian Engel) is something I finally picked up based on various recent recommendations, and it’s a brilliant short novel packed with meaning. It felt like it sits quite perfectly balanced between reality and fable. The Bear by Claire Cameron (this time the publishers could afford a definite article) has some very impressive writing considering the challenge of creating first-person narration by a five year-old girl telling the horrific story of her family attacked by a bear while camping. It’s certainly riveting stuff.
Assorted islands, decades apart: Mysterious Island (Jules Verne) serves as something of a follow-up to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, though this isn’t clear from glancing at the book. It hits the ground running (almost literally) then becomes a trifle dull when a band of survivors spends long chapters surveying the island before it picks up again by the end. Island (Aldous Huxley) is apparently meant to balance Brave New World, with a Western character washing up on the shores of a far more ideal civilization. But the events and characters serve as basic scaffolding for a series of lectures: worthy stuff, but also fairly dull a lot of the time. The best moment details “Peter Pan syndrome,” and the way some men never grow up emotionally (with the ultimate example being Hitler).
A unique voice: Swiss-born Robert Walser appears to have dedicated most of his life to wandering Europe and cultivating his unique and thoughtful way of looking at the world. I really enjoyed A Schoolboy’s Diary and Other Stories (some of them shorter than a page) and I’m now reading his short novel Jakob von Gunten just because I enjoy his voice so much. I’m not sure I’ve ever found a writer so content with his own small role in the world, as we all must learn to be: “The railway trains thunder over the quivering bridges. Evenings, the fabulous rich and elegant shopwindows shine, and streams, serpents, and billows of people roll past the allures of industrial riches on display. Yes, that all seems grand and good to me. One profits from being in the midst of the whirling and bubbling. One has a good feeling in the legs, the arms, and the chest while making the effort to wriggle cleverly and without much fuss through all the living stuff. In the morning everything comes to life anew, and in the evening everything sinks into the wildly embracing arms of a new and unknown dream.”
More Fiction: Goodbye to Berlin (Isherwood) is probably my favourite novel of the year for its poignancy and detailed characters. Isherwood appears to have been right there on the street to see Nazi thugs in the early years, and a city in transition. I finally caught up with Crime and Punishment, which certainly lives up to its reputation as a classic, and I enjoyed Three Day Road (Joseph Boyden) for being so carefully crafted, though it didn’t seem to grab me, emotionally. Henderson the Rain King (Saul Bellow) is funny and an enjoyably exaggerated parody of a personal crisis even as the pacing is a little too leisurely for my taste. My Face for the World to See (Alfred Hayes) is the story of an affair set in Hollywood, and it’s among those concise and poignant novels I’m always very pleased to have read. Hayes apparently contributed to The Bicycle Thief (1948), which has long been a favourite film of mine. I admired the quirky and unique stories in Circus (Claire Battershill).
A Death in the Family (James Agee) is an 11 out of 10 for sadness, but more importantly it’s a remarkable accomplishment in terms of the reader really feeling the events of the book. After the death of his father, the young boy looks at his father’s body in the funeral home and feels it’s like “a very successfully disguised stranger.” A Meaningful Life (L.J. Davis) was vividly written but remorselessly bleak. Comfort cannot be found here, even in a book: “It smelled powerfully of mouse shit, and its pages were the color and consistency of stale Finnish flat bread. Mechanically it was not an easy book to read. In some cases, whole pages disintegrated as Lowell scanned them, as though the weight of his gaze was too much for them to bear.”
Nonfiction: The World of Yesterday (Stefan Zweig) is an endlessly fascinating memoir. Zweig grew up in Vienna before either of the world wars and travelled overseas without a passport before our heightened sense of nationalism. He knew Freud, watched Rodin sculpt, and finally even saw Germany transform under Hitler. Every Wolf’s Howl (Barry Grills) is an immensely human and readable account of owning a dog that turned out to be, well, basically a wolf. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (George Packer) should be required reading for our strange times. Titanic (Filson Young) is an excellent, sometimes almost poetic account of the disaster published a matter of weeks later by a journalist.
Essay collections: Cultural Amnesia (Clive James) is simply a great collection of essays. Intended as something of a time capsule and covering a range of subjects, they’re both accessible and highly perceptive. Farther Away (Jonathan Franzen) is a lucid collection. Here’s Franzen on why he likes short stories: “They leave the writer no place to hide. There’s no yakking your way out of trouble; I’m going to be reaching the last page in a matter of minutes, and if you’ve got nothing to say I’m going to know it.” I blogged about how much I enjoyed Loitering (Charles D’Ambrosio) below. Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit) was also terrific, and felt like something that should be required reading. The Crow Who Tampered With Time (Lloyd Ratzlaff) is a meditative essay collection, well worth picking up.
Genre: Casino Royale (Fleming) is inexcusably sexist, but it can at least be said to be staggeringly obvious about it. Leaving aside the chapter Bond details the rules of the game at length, it is also pretty much a riveting spy novel with the occasional memorable moment of dialogue: “Surround yourself with human beings, my dear James. They are easier to fight for than principles.” Among Others (Jo Walton) is a leisurely but engaging story of magic and struggle in daily life, and it’s infused with a love of books thanks to a slightly obsessive narrator. It was nice to have a love of books validated in this way. Dying Inside (Robert Silverberg) is a poignant novel about a man losing his ability to read minds. Well written, captivating and unique, but it suffers from some severe stereotypes, which is a trifle ironic for a novel about our ability to connect.
More Genre: The Dreaming Jewels (Theodore Sturgeon) is inventive and compelling. For years, I’ve known Sturgeon only as the writer of one of the better original Star Trek episodes. We’ve had so many dinosaur shenanigans in various forms over the years that The Lost World (Arthur Conan Doyle) is a book you can read for the first time with a certain familiarity, but it’s nonetheless thoroughly enjoyable.
Graphic novels: The Sculptor (Scott McCloud) is a lengthy graphic novel at 488 pages, but it also manages to be an engrossing read about a young artist gaining the ability to manipulate stone or any other material with his hands. The plot may belong to The Twilight Zone, but McCloud manages an impressive meditation on the challenges of trying to make art, particularly in an age of instant gratification. Starling (Sage Stossel) is a fun, charming female-superhero graphic novel. Here (Richard McGuire) which takes one location throughout time as its focus, is really not to be missed.
Poetry: Among others, I enjoyed The Lease (Matthew Henderson), Inheritance (Kerry-Lee Powell), For Your Safety Please Hold On (Kayla Czaga) The Cold Panes of Surfaces (Chris Banks), Leaving the Island (Talya Rubin) and Kingdom (Elizabeth Ross). All very fine poetry books.
Film and TV: The Music Room (1958) is an Indian drama I just happened to pick up at the Toronto library, but as a poignant tale of a rich man’s life declining, it was among my favourite films of the year. I took some time to explore Chaplin this year, also to be found at the library or even on YouTube: Modern Times, The Gold Rush and City Lights are all absolute masterpieces and a joy to watch. At a time film was cranked out and wasn’t considered an art form, Chaplin insisted on perfection. I watched the new Daredevil series on Netflix and enjoyed it, though I think it confuses darkness with maturity in going unnecessarily bleak at times. Longmire is a police drama that’s essentially a modern Western, worth it for some of the relationships. And I’d go on about enjoying the elegance porn of Downton Abbey, the drama of Mad Men and the escapism of Game of Thrones, but are there people who don’t know anything about these shows?
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