Year in Review: 2016

04May17

The stars aligned so that I read a number of short, potent non-fiction books at the start of the year: Between the World and Me (Coates) is an articulate and powerful letter on growing up black in America. It offers no easy answers, nor should it. Men of Action (Howard Akler) is an intensely thoughtful and personal meditation on consciousness, memory and family, triggeredeck2016d by the death of his father, and a quietly remarkable book. The Nearest Thing to Life (James Wood) is a set of four essays largely covering the joys of fiction. Aside from giving you a number of ideas for books to read, it has coherent thoughts on fiction like this: “At the service, I was struck by the thought that death gives us the awful privilege of seeing a life whole; that a funeral or even an obituary is a liturgical home for that uneasy privilege; and that fiction is the literary genre that most powerfully offers a secular version of that liturgical hospitality.”

Nonfiction: With an opening chapter about a new, “unstoppable” fungus making its way around the world and killing nearly every species of frog, The Sixth Extinction (Elizabeth Kolbert) is articulate, accessible, well-informed and important. I found much to admire in The Danger Tree (David MacFarlane) which blends family history and the overall history of Newfoundland, including some of the most poignant writing I’ve seen on the First World War, written in a way that gets beyond the statistics into the loss to families and communities.

More nonfiction: A. A. Gill is a smart, amusing travel guide in A.A. Gill is Away, describing Wildebeest as “God’s extras.” But he’s also interested to comment on the larger world through his specific observations. I Was Hitler’s Chauffeur (Kempka) has an awkward title but it’s a fascinating account from a man who was by his side from the beginning to the end. How does a man who remembers to bring treats for his chauffeur also become one of the most despised men in history? Letters to a Young Contrarian (Hitchens) is a worthy book, and Sixty (Ian Brown) is smart, honest and immensely readable, nor is it self-indulgent given that Brown relates his experiences to the wider world. The Hatred of Poetry (Lerner) is concise and insightful. I also read Mortality by Hitchens, and while excellent it is also quite sad for obvious reasons. I dearly wish we had his commentary on our current political climate, and events since his death.

More non-fiction: The Loss of the S. S. Titanic (Beesley) is not my favourite account but nonetheless it’s a very readable book by a survivor who reportedly tried to crash the set of the film A Night to Remember decades later, interested to go down with the ship this time. Boy: Tales of Childhood (Roald Dahl) is recommended as a charming memoir. It turns out Dahl and his childhood friends were used for product testing, which helped inspire Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Anyone with a passing interest in Oakville or for that matter anyone with aging  parents should read They Left Us Everything (Plum Johnson). Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet (Wiman) is a fine, engaging memoir.

Fiction: Dept of Speculation (Jenny Offill) is a short novel, wonderfully concise in how it skips through to all the relevant moments, or just switches to a brief quote from Einstein if it damn well feels like it. And Offill is funny: “It’s true that I am feebleminded at the grocery store. I write lists that I forget, buy things we don’t need or already have. Later, my husband will say, did you get toilet paper, did you get ketchup, did you get garlic, and I will say, no, no, I forgot, sorry, here is some butterscotch pudding and some toothpicks and some whiskey sour mix.”

Honourable mentions for fiction: The Man Who Was Thursday (Chesterton), Whale Music (Quarrington), The Warden (Trollope), Outline (Rachel Cusk), Cassandra at the Wedding (Dorothy Baker), The Train Was On Time (Heinrich Boll), Sweetland (Michael Crummey).

Oh, and Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson. I read both the short story The Lottery and the short novel The Haunting of Hill House and loved them both. A great writer who led a fascinating life. It’s writing with the same hard-hitting potency as a new writer I picked up: Debris is a collection of short stories by Kevin Hardcastle (new from Biblioasis).

Genre: Six-Gun Snow White (Catherynne M. Valente) is a thoroughly enjoyable, charged retelling of the fairy tale with great language: “Her hair was braided up nice. It had a color like good whiskey.” Neverwhere (Nail Gaiman) has creativity to spare: creativity as embroidery at the edge of the main body of creativity. The Paper Menagerie (Ken Liu) smoothly blends SF ideas, a graceful imagination and literary meaning for terrific stories. Skin and Bones (Thorne Smith) is depression-era fiction, and a curious tale of a man periodically turning into a skeleton. While longer than necessary, some of the language is great: “slop-fed thugs” comes to mind. The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet (Becky Chambers) takes its time and creates real-feeling characters before involving them in an engaging plot.

Essays: Shame and Wonder (David Searcy) begins with a remarkable essay about a coyote so experienced it is only eventually fooled (and shot) by a farmer employing a recording of his infant daughter’s cry. Some of the other essays, while extremely worthy, enter such a meditative state loaded with digressions it may require a little patience from the reader. Eating the Dinosaur (Chuck Klosterman) is a quirky, intelligent collection of essays. On his distaste for laugh tracks “The voices recorded on modern laugh tracks were often the same original voices recorded by Douglas during pre-ancient radio shows like Burns and Allen, which would mean that the sound we hear on laugh tracks is the sound of dead people laughing.”

TV: The Crimson Field is a somewhat melodramatic by worthy BBC series about nurses behind the front lines of the First World War, cancelled too early, though more troubling is the BBC cancellation of The Hour, among the best TV dramas I’ve ever seen. It’s the year I finished Mad Men, Downton Abbey (both excellent historicals) and, well, Stargate SG1, which is entertaining and enjoys good camaraderie between the characters.

Film: I was impressed with many films in 2016 (really too many to mention here) but as I watch them I do tend to comment on them on Twitter, if you’d care to get in touch: @alexboydwriter

Graphic Novels: Dark Night: A True Batman Story (Paul Dini) tells a personal story by the talented writer behind some excellent Batman stories over the years. Agatha: The Real Life of Agatha Christie (Martinetti) feels a bit brief but is nonetheless worthwhile. We Stand On Guard (Brian Vaughan) imagines a U.S. invasion of Canada in the future and while a bit nasty and heavy-handed it’s also engaging. Cruising Through the Louvre (David Prudhomme) is so inventive and charming it really should not be missed.

You can stop reading now if you don’t give a rat’s ass about Star Trek, but as it was the year the original show turned 50 I picked up a few books about it, including the BFI Classics book on the original series, Star Trek (Ina Rae Hark) which comes across as appreciative but unafraid to be critical: “One thinks of the typical cliques that form in high schools, their members rarely interacting. Kirk is the sports hero who is also president of the student council, Spock the brainy geek who runs the chess club and McCoy the regular guy with lots of friends who hangs out at the corner soda shop (or, now, the shopping centre). Probably more utopian that any of its social theory was Star Trek’s insistence that there was a community where all three types mattered and respected what each other could contribute.”

More Trekking: In his memoir The View from the Bridge, Nicholas Meyer is good company: “I am still absorbed by stories, which I thought would never go out of fashion, dating as they do back to Homer. But lately narrative has been replaced by rides. Endless action sequences, unrelated to character or plot, are just a different kind of pornography, one in which standalone episodes of violence are substituted for standalone episodes of sex. The stories that nominally link these episodes are of little interest because – at least to me – they are unconnected or unrelated to life, which is what appeals to me. I am interested in heroes, not superheroes. Caped crusaders and movies that end with the word “Man” strike me as rather pathetic attempts to dial out an encroaching reality that most Americans appear unwilling to confront. The movies I am interesting making – and watching – are all attempts to confront reality, however quirky, peculiar, hilarious, or unpleasant.”

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