Year in Review: 2017


My David Copperfield failure: I came grinding to a halt about halfway through, despite having enjoyed other Dickens books. It’s really just long enough that I can’t help but be aware of the other books I could read in the same amount of time. I was moved, though, by Copperfield’s last memory of his mother: “I was in the carrier’s cart when I heard her calling to me. I looked out, and she stood at the garden-gate alone, holding her baby up in her arms for me to see. It was cold still weather; and not a hair of her head, nor a fold of her dress, was stirred, as she looked intently at me, holding up her child.”

Also, it seems clear Tolkien must have read Copperfield, as the character of Uriah Heep is remarkably Gollum-like. He’s repulsive and writhes, is described as a “creature,” and a “wretch,” and uses a fawning manner. A sample of his dialogue: “It’s like the blowing of old breezes and the ringing of old bellses to hear you say Uriah.”Hjun2017

Fiction I admired: We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Jackson) All the Broken Things (Kuitenbrouwer), Swimming Lessons (Fuller). Mark Sampson is both smart and funny in The Slip, a relevant and entertaining look at modern life and its digitally unforgiving nature. Very glad to see Things Not to Do, new short fiction by Jessica Westhead (there’s a One Question Interview, below). The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (McCullers) is a classic I’d been meaning to read for some time and it’s a poignant, empathetic story that deserves its status.

Genre: Around the World in Eighty Days (Verne) is pretty thoroughly entertaining, and What Dreams May Come (Matheson) is both a good novel and an involving exploration of possible worlds after death. Matheson had clearly done a lot of reading on the subject. You may have seen his memorable original Twilight Zone episodes, or other films based on his novels. The Further Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: The Giant Rat of Sumatra (Boyer) is a fun read that hits all the right notes for Sherlock.

Nonfiction: The Inconvenient Indian (Thomas King) is a conversational but articulate and important book. Hiroshima (Hersey) follows the story of a number of survivors quite closely, and single-handedly began changing American opinions on the use of atomic bombs when it was published. Truly, a remarkable book. The Promise of Canada (Gray) was an enjoyable book that revisits different historical figures, some well known, others nearly forgotten. A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (Stephen Reid) is a memoir of life and jail time that has moments that struck me as Orwellian clarity (thinking of his essays here) like the simple but important reminder it’s the wounded who go out and wound others.

Essays: Revolutions (Alex Good) is a set of opinions on Canadian literature not tied to the kind of received wisdom people usually spit out when asked (if asked at all) about Canadian literature. Best American Essays 2010, edited by Christopher Hitchens, was an excellent selection, and I was also impressed with the latest in the Canadian series: Best Canadian Essays 2017. Glad to see the series continuing thanks to the efforts of Tightrope Books, Christopher Doda and guest editors. Essays After Eighty (Donald Hall) shows a charming, calm intelligence at work.

The state of the world: A.A. Gill is Away is both a funny and perceptive travel book, with some surprising opinions on how deeply screwed up he finds parts of the supposedly civilized world. A Green Reef: The Impact of Climate Change (Henighan) is an alarming, important, concise download everyone should be checking out. Hope in the Dark (Solnit) is a worthy, intelligent book, though I long for the time things were as dark as all that.

Remarkable women taking notes: Notes from No Man’s Land, American Essays (Eula Biss) is an excellent, perceptive set of personal essays that nevertheless relate to the wider world, and Notes from a Feminist Killjoy: Essays on Everyday Life (Erin Wunker) is an honest, articulate work that’s also important. While very accessible overall, I thought the occasional term was only fleetingly explained. But more importantly, it enhanced my understanding of what women go through, sometimes just walking home from work. Field Notes: A City Girl’s Search for Heart and Home in Rural Nova Scotia (Sara Jewell) is valuable in a quieter way, taking the form of a thoughtful and thoroughly enjoyable memoir.

I found The Highly Sensitive Person (Elaine Aron) valuable. It’s refreshing to be referred to not as weak or flawed, but as the “the royal-advisor class,” or “priest class, supplying some kind of ineffable nourishment to our society. I cannot presume to label it.” Generally speaking, the HSP is not valued: “In our culture we are not just a minority but one that is considered to be far from the ideal.”  And yet “we HSPs do a great disservice to ourselves and others when we think of ourselves as weak compared to the warrior. Our strength is different, but frequently it is more powerful. Often it is the only kind that can begin to handle suffering and evil. It certainly requires equal courage … nor is it always about enduring, accepting, and finding meaning in suffering. Sometimes actions involving great skill and strategy are called for.”

The Tiger (John Vaillant) is a riveting account of a man eater, but it’s also fascinating for the glimpse into Russia: “Under communism, there was room, albeit strictly controlled, for aspiration, and there was a State guarantee of basic security in terms of education, employment, housing, and food. But most of these assurances disintegrated after perestroika. Replacing them, along with crime, alcoholism, and despondency, were satellite dishes offering multiple channels that allowed you to see just how far behind you really were. Nowadays, in many parts of the world – not just Soboloyne – it is possible to starve while watching television.”

Graphic novels: I enjoyed a couple of graphic novel biographies, including James Joyce, Portrait of a Dubliner (Capico) and Lennon: The New York Years (Foenkinos). I’d also recommend Snow White: A Graphic Novel (Phelan) and How to Survive in the North (Healy).

Jason (who goes by this name only, professionally) is a Norwegian cartoonist skilled at telling utterly unpretentious, concise but fascinating stories in more then one genre. I loved a number of titles: Why Are You Doing This? and The Last Musketeer as well as I Killed Adolph Hitler and On the Camino. The Toronto library had all these graphic novels.

Poetry: Class Clown, by Pino Coluccio, is a terrific and utterly unpretentious collection I’m so pleased to have. I read Leviathan (Carmine Starnino) and found it superb, as meaningful as it was carefully crafted. Allegheny, BC (Rodney DeCroo) is a collection with refreshing focus, and I managed to get out to celebrate new collections by Jim Johnstone (The Chemical Life) and Shane Neilson (Dysphoria) as well as, remarkably enough, a new collected Aldwn Nowlan. Yes, finally, a collected Alden Nowlan. I’m really enjoying the meditative and thoughtful work of Chris Banks again with The Cloud Versus Grand Unification Theory, and there’s a One Question Interview, below.

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