Year in Review: 2020


This year a couple of my poems found homes: The Undertow of the World is over at Cypress, and a poem called “Dictators at Night” can be found in the new, winter issue of Taddle Creek. It’s easy to subscribe online (not to mention quite affordable in Canada). As always, here are some thoughts on favourite books of the year including nonfiction, novels and stories as well as graphic novels.

Essays: Notes of a Native Son (James Baldwin) is a collection of essays published in the 1950s but still relevant today. I reached for my highlighter often. Here’s one of the many statements that struck me as very perceptive: “I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain.” 

The Mystery Shopping Cart (Anita Lahey) is both essays and interviews. Lahey deserves thanks for so frequently engaging with other writers over the years.

Be Scared of Everything: Horror Essays (Peter Counter) is a set of concise, articulate essays that actually draws from a variety of cultural sources, from horror films to some of the more bizarre alleys of the Internet. A full review can be found a little further down on this blog. 

Impossible Owls (Brian Phillips) is series of long, thoughtful and well-written essays on obscure subjects – like Sumo wrestlers – and comes highly recommended.  

Novels: True Grit (Charles Portis) and Hard Rain Falling (Carpenter) were two of my favourite novels of the year. Both were hard-hitting, compelling and highly descriptive in an accessible style. 

An Artist of the Floating World (Ishiguro) is a quietly compelling and flawlessly written story, not to mention a poignant one.  

Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (Siegfried Sassoon) is what I assume to be a memoir wearing a thin disguise as a novel. I was struck by description like this: “In 1917 I was only beginning to learn that life, for the majority of the population, is an unlovely struggle against unfair odds, culminating in a cheap funeral.” This after a description of a British soldier with “a horribly smashed head.” Sassoon describes a mug of “reviving but trench-flavoured tea.” Meeting the Colonel during a conflict he feels he has “no business to be there at all, let alone helping to make a hole in the Colonel’s cake, which was a jolly good one.” Or the absurdity of a fairly sadistic doctor who appears to enjoy upsetting the soldiers under his care. Sassoon asks about a few weeks in the country and the reply comes: “You’ll stay here; and when you leave here, you’ll find yourself back at the front in double-quick time. How d’you like that idea?” Sassoon feels like hitting him, but in the end assumes someone else will do it. 

Mr. Bridge (Even S. Connell) is a superb portrait of a flawed character and borderline fascist. I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as Mrs. Bridge (written earlier) given the earlier novel has a more sympathetic character and manages more poignancy. But a portrait of a narrow-minded character is still relevant and both are quiet American masterpieces. 

I found both Moon of the Crusted Snow (Waubeshig Rice) and Split Tooth (Tanya Tagaq) to be absolutely compelling reading.

Life of Pi (Martell) is a novel I’d been meaning to read for I don’t know, twenty years? I loved it, and it’s always a pleasure to discover a book that’s a philosophical adventure worthy of all the hype. 

Stories: Robert Walser spent decades simply wandering, and I really like his meditative, short (sometimes very short) stories that find their way to reverence frequently. This year I read Girlfriends, Ghosts, and Other Stories. Here’s a moment he contemplates a matchstick: “And what would the reader say to the little match or matchstick, just as dear as delicate, a sweet, odd little person, lying in its matchbox next to its numerous comrades, patient, proper, well-behaved, as if adream or asleep.” 

Speaking of concise work, Collapsible (Tim Conley) really impressed me for being both concise and so inventive I was rarely able to assume they were based on the author’s life. 

Flying Home and Other Stories (Ralph Ellison) is a set of stories not collected after his death, which is surprising given how potent they were. 

Jesus’ Son (Denis Johnson) provides lessons in rarely having a dull sentence, as demonstrated by this transition when a character has been picked up as a hitchhiker: “Under Midwestern clouds like great grey brains we left the superhighway with a drifting sensation and entered Kansas City’s rush hour with a sensation of running aground.” 

Dark Tales (Shirley Jackson) is a well-written, inventive and perhaps somewhat cynical collection, something like entering a literary Twilight Zone. 

Genre: Somewhere in Time (Matheson) felt long to me, and somewhat clumsily written even as latching on to a woman quite desperately and having her respond with the same feelings stretched believability. I’ve admired other books by Matheson, but this one felt like it needed more work. 

Station Eleven (Mandel) is a thoroughly compelling take on a possible apocalypse, and I particularly loved the way some characters ended up living in what should have been a pit-stop along the way, but at that moment civilization happened to crumble. I thought the end seemed a little movie-like, which was a trifle disappointing. 

Nonfiction: Difficult Women: A Memoir of Three (David Plante) is a pretty fascinating memoir that plucks interesting moments from the lives of three fascinating women. Here’s a quote from Jean Rhys, late in life: “I want to tell you something very important. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy … and there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters.” 

Man-Eaters of Kumaon (Jim Corbett) was a bestseller decades ago, and these gripping real-life stories of hunting tigers that had turned (unnaturally) into man-eaters were remarkable. Frequently the tigers were quite old or wounded in a way that forced a change in diets. Corbett reveals that tigers are sometimes a bit incompetent at killing porcupines and injure themselves that way. In some tigers he finds porcupine quills “over nine inches in length and as thick as pencils.” 

The Invention of Solitude (Auster) is an incredibly gripping read in the first half for its remarkable portrait of his father. I found it a topsy-turvy experience, though, with a second half more dense and, for me, suddenly less enjoyable. 

Graphic novels: Kingdom (Jon McNaught) was simply among my favourite books of the year. Not much happens to a family on holiday in the UK, but that’s entirely the point of this exquisite book with entire pages that decline to have any dialogue. 

The New Ghost (Robert Hunter) is a short, delightful and slightly trippy graphic story that isn’t easy to track down. I ordered three copies by mail in a pandemic and the first two simply didn’t make it to me. But I understand there will be a new edition in the spring of 2021. 

The Twilight Man (Koren Shadmi) is a graphic novel biography of Rod Serling that’s well worth tracking down. 

Black Hammer (Jeff Lemire) is a series I finished this year and I loved everything about it, from the artwork to the refreshingly different take on the superhero genre. 

The Gigantic Beard That Was Evil (Stephen Collins) is perfect: a profound book hiding beneath a somewhat silly (but at least refreshingly unpretentious) title. 

Both Goliath and Mooncop by Tom Gauld are well worth checking out as well as his brilliant cartoons, of course. 

Pulp (Brubaker, illustrated by Phillips) manages to pack meaning into a short story that blends the Western and hard-boiled detective genres in a satisfying way. 

In Waves (Dungo) has clean, calming images that are used to blend the history of surfing with a touching personal story. 

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