2016: A Year of Good Reads

January 3, 2017

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According to some of my fellow writers, novelists should never read fiction while their own work is in progress. In the midst of writing a magnum opus, the argument goes, one should not be unduly influenced or distracted by another novelist’s style or method; to do so would risk derailing one’s own creative process by engaging in some form of subconscious mimicry. I would say that’s true while the writing itself is in progress. But between drafts? A different story. As a writer embarking on his first novel after five non-fiction books, I think it’s important to read as much fiction as possible—if only to appreciate what I’m up against.

In 2016, I read plenty of novels when not writing another couple of drafts of my own. But there was also lots of non-fiction on my reading agenda. The following is not a “Top Ten” list but merely a sampling of books I read last year, only some of them new titles, arranged by author in alphabetical order:

Joseph Boyden, Three Day Road (Penguin: 2005)

Until he stepped in the doo-doo of the Galloway affair at UBC—a public relations nightmare that has since seen him accused of misogyny, dropped from a literary jury and, in the spirit of truth and reconciliation, subjected to a national show trial for his questionable claim to indigenous roots—Boyden was the darling of a polite society known as CanLit. I hadn’t read his work until a friend raved about him earlier last year. His first novel, a World War I epic, traces the journey of Xavier and Elijah, two young Ojibwe men who begin the story as traditional hunters in their Cree homeland and eventually become expert snipers on the European battlefront. Only Xavier returns, badly injured and morphine addicted, to the care of his aunt, who co-narrates. Boyden’s rendering of Xavier’s passage to disillusionment, his unraveling friendship with Elijah, the horrors of war, and the pain of recovery, is riveting stuff. Three Day Road brilliantly weaves together historical and cultural narratives with personal drama and, yes, a convincing account of aboriginal experience in northern Ontario. There’s no denying that Boyden has cashed in on what seem to be dubious Metis roots. But through his work and commitment, it could be argued that he has done more for aboriginal rights and awareness in Canada than some of the armchair critics accusing him of “cultural fraud” have done. More to the point of this list, he’s one hell of a storyteller. Just before New Year’s, I cracked open his 2013 masterpiece, The Orenda. So far, so good.

 

Ian Buruma, Year Zero: A History of 1945 (Penguin: 2013); Theatre of Cruelty: Art, Film, and the Shadows of War (New York Review of Books: 2014)

There’s a certain kind of essayist I have always found impressive: the kind who refuses specialty but—within a generalist approach loosely defined as political—displays an impressive knowledge base in a range of interests while writing in a spirit of fairness, a humanism untarnished by ideology. Buruma, a Dutch academic and long-time contributor to the NYRB, is one of them. I first learned of his work about fifteen years ago while doing research for The Rice Queen Diaries. A seminal text on the white male experience in exotic Asia, The Missionary and the Libertine: Love and War in East and West (faber and faber: 1996) revealed a deft hand in its author’s tackling of a most contentious issue. In Year Zero, Buruma recounts some of the lesser known stories from the final year of World War II—stories of rape, revenge, greed, and deal-making—to describe the agonizing transition to a new world for the peoples of both European and Pacific “theatres”. Continuing with the war theme, Theatre of Cruelty is a selection of NYRB essays between 1987 and 2013 about the legacies of WWII. Here Buruma celebrates the creators who tried to make sense of the world arising from the ashes of war (“who looked into the abyss and made art of what they saw”). From Beckmann and Mishima to Herzog, Fassbinder and Kurosawa, from Clint Eastwood to David Bowie, Buruma’s got it covered.

 

Albert Camus, The Outsider (Penguin: 1983, originally published in 1942 as The Stranger); Kamel Daoud, The Meursault Investigation (Other Press, 2015)

It was Stan Persky, in an essay for dooneyscafe.com, who inadvertently shamed me into reading Camus by quoting the opening line from Alice Kaplan’s Looking for The Stranger: Albert Camus and the Life of a Literary Classic (University of Chicago: 2016). “Reading The Stranger,” wrote Kaplan, “is a rite of passage. People all over the world connect the book to their coming of age, to grappling with the toughest questions of existence.” Well, gee whiz. I wish I’d known someone, anyone, who was reading Camus while I was growing up in Nanaimo—or later, as an undergrad, studying English lit and political science. Having finally read the book in early middle age, I regard The Outsider less as a rite of passage than as a bittersweet journey into the glory days of existentialism, a period when neo-colonialism faced little, if any, accountability. Accompanying Meursault on his journey from a family funeral to his trial for murder, we can see how the narrator’s indifference to his mother’s death—and his seeming amoralism on the road to that fateful day on the beach in Algiers—would be a total affront to bourgeois sensibilities of the time. As was the very notion of being true to oneself. Less apparent to the original European reader would have been the story’s inherent racism. One of The Outsider’s key elements is its Orientalism: its “othering” of dark Muslim culture, of the unnamed “Arab” and his companions that Meursault encounters in Algiers. Kamel Daoud takes this element and turns it into a fascinating novel of his own in The Meursault Investigation. Returning to the events of seventy years earlier, he gives the murdered “Arab” a name, Musa. Retracing events through the narrative voice of Musa’s younger brother, Harun, Daoud provides a fuller picture of the deprivations of Algerian life during the neo-colonial period in which the original story was set. In doing so, his novel serves as a worthy companion to The Outsider. Given the climate of fear and distrust surrounding the Occidental/Oriental divide, Camus’s book surely has fresh relevance today, and it’s no wonder Daoud’s book is being turned into a movie. Kaplan’s book, which addresses all these things and more, is next up on my shelf.

 

Noam Chomsky, What Kind of Creatures Are We? (Columbia: 2016)

I’m afraid I’ve gotten rather tired of Noam Chomsky. It’s not that the nearly novogenarian critic of U.S. foreign policy isn’t right about a lot of the things he talks about. It’s more that his predictable, any-enemy-of-the-U.S.-is-beyond-reproach stance and his casual indifference to facts that might contradict his thesis can get in the way of good argument. Having said that, it’s important to remember that linguistics—Chomsky’s first area of expertise, without which he would never have gained his foreign policy soapbox—has always been his terra firma. The only reason he’s on this list is that the reader’s group I belong to wanted to discuss his latest thoughts on what language is and what it’s for. This is heady stuff: Chomsky covers a range of fields here, including theoretical linguistics, cognitive science, philosophy of science, history of science, evolutionary biology, metaphysics, the theory of knowledge, the philosophy of language and mind, moral and political philosophy, and the ideal of human education. For me, the one argument that stood out from this cornucopia of ideas was the author’s contention that language originated primarily as an instrument of thought, and that the notion it should have a “purpose”, such as communication, is itself dogmatic. Typically provocative, given the source.

 

Mohamed Fahmy, The Marriott Cell (Random House: 2016, with Carol Shaben)

After signing a petition to free the Egyptian-Canadian journalist from Cairo’s notorious Scorpion prison, then meeting him at a Vancouver Canucks game only weeks after his release and hearing about this book from his co-author (who I happen to know as the B.C. & Yukon rep for the Writers’ Union of Canada), I was looking forward to reading Fahmy’s story. The book’s title comes from the Egyptian government’s name for the Al Jazeera English bureau staff it accused of colluding with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood: Fahmy and his colleagues worked out of a small office in Cairo’s Marriott hotel. The author’s blow-by-blow account of the more than 400 days he spent in one of the world’s worst prisons is Hollywood blockbuster material, so it’s no wonder the book has already been optioned. The paradox of a secular Muslim sharing his cell with some of the world’s most dangerous jihadists—some of whom Fahmy had been wanting to interview for years before finally getting the opportunity in confinement—is well covered here, along with accounts of torture, heroic efforts by the “two strong women” fighting for his release (his wife, Marwa Omara, and his celebrity lawyer, Amal Clooney), and the foot-dragging of Stephen Harper’s lame duck Conservative government. Perhaps the hardest lesson of all was Fahmy’s mistaken assumption that his employer, Al Jazeera English, operated with editorial independence from its Qatar-based parent company and would act in his and his colleagues’ best interests once they were imprisoned.

 

Garth Greenwell, What Belongs to You (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux: 2016)

One of the most eagerly anticipated first novels of the year, this Proustian saga of an American expat teacher’s obsessive pursuit of a Bulgarian hustler he successfully cruises in a public toilet has been compared to Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. That may or may not be a good thing. Almost a novella at 191 pages, What Belongs to You is noteworthy for the tightness of its caramel-smooth prose. With paragraphs that go on for several pages, and dialogue that appears without quotation marks, this novel took several sittings to complete. Rather surprising, in a book whose plotline is loaded with prurient interest: in a bleak, east European setting, a lonely North American protagonist carries on a complicated relationship with a dissolute street youth he sometimes has hot sex with. Given this most familiar of themes in gay literature, there was much potential for the story to go off the rails into melodrama. Thankfully, Greenwell’s gritty portrait of the rough trade Mitko—and his subtle rendering of the socioeconomic barriers that prevent the two characters from achieving deep or lasting connection—is enough to maintain reader interest. By the end of the novel, with their vulnerabilities exposed, we agonize for both the impoverished Mitko and his privileged but emotionally bereft lover.

 

Brett Josef Grubisic, From Up River and for One Night Only (Now or Never Publishing: 2016)

Full disclosure: I know Grubisic, and we have critiqued each other’s manuscripts, including a draft for From Up River. With apologies to our mutual writing buddy, Carellin Brooks—whose finest book, One Hundred Days of Rain (Book Thug: 2015), I read during a year for which I compiled no list—Grubisic makes the cut because of how his book managed to grow on me. What I had earlier lamented as its occasional flashes of “post-modernism on steroids” was really just hyperactive irony. Since his first novel, The Age of Cities (Arsenal Pulp: 2006), Grubisic’s fiction has morphed dramatically from conventional narrative prose into a breathless, almost stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of the Beats. (I would call it “first thought, best thought” as in Kerouac, but that would be overstating things.) What makes this idiosyncratic style work, especially in From Up River, is the author’s sense of humour. In a story about awkward adolescents growing up in suburban British Columbia during the late Seventies and early Eighties, the premise of a group of teenaged misfits trying to be cool and get regular sex by starting a band—despite having neither instruments nor an abundance of talent—is loaded with satiric possibility. Grubisic mines it for all it’s worth, nicely capturing the time, the place, and the pathos of a generation with dialogue and scenery that often crackle off the page.

 

Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particles (Vintage, 2001); The Map and the Territory (Vintage, 2011); Submission (Penguin Random House, 2015)

Few North American readers had heard of Houellebecq until Submission was released on the same day that Islamic jihadists broke into the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo and slaughtered a bunch of cartoonists. Sensational media coverage of the book gave the impression that Submission was some kind of racist, anti-Muslim screed. After finally reading it while on vacation last year, I was pleased to discover a smart and darkly funny novel about the failure of secularism in French society, and how the rise of the ultra-right wing Front National could conceivably open the door to an Islamist party victory and, eventually, a Caliphate in France. Houellebecq suffers from fatal readability: on that same vacation, I also read The Map and the Territory—a romp of a novel about art world shenanigans featuring a writer named Houellebecq (whose mysterious murder some interpreted as the author thumbing his nose at the Prix Goncourt awards jury for snubbing an earlier work in favour of another author’s murder mystery). Later I read The Elementary Particles, a nasty takedown of the free love movement of the 1960s and 70s. Houellebecq is especially biting on how the self-indulgence of opportunistic narcissism damaged, in adulthood, two half brothers whose mother was completely consumed by the movement during their respective childhoods. At some point I must get my hands on Houellebecq’s Platform, an equally praised and reviled novel about a French loser who finds no meaning in life until he becomes a sex tourist in Thailand. The bad boy of French literature, it seems, is too hard to resist.

 

Viet Than Nguyen, The Sympathizer (Grove Press: 2015); Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (Harvard: 2016)

Viet Than Nguyen’s darkly comic first novel was one of my favourite books of the year. The Sympathizer is both spy thriller and Viet Kieu immigration saga; at once a serious novel about political duplicity and a saucy lampooning of American pop culture’s neurotic obsession with the war in Vietnam. In crafting this clever tale of betrayal and loss, Nguyen clearly benefited from his own dual identity as a hyphenized American born in Saigon in 1971. His narrator, half-French and half-Vietnamese, is a captain in the South Vietnamese army as well as a communist spy who manages to board one of the last flights out of the country before the fall of Saigon in April 1975. Ending up in Los Angeles, he is forced to live a double life: on one hand carrying out assassination orders for the Viet Cong, on the other falling in love and trying to live a normal life in Southern California. At one point, he is flown to the Philippines after being hired as a technical consultant for a film whose production environment and messianic director bear striking resemblance to those of “Apocalypse Now”. Wickedly funny…. Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, has other tools up his sleeve in Nothing Ever Dies. The product of a lifetime’s reflection on a conflict that still lingers in the collective memory of both the U.S. and Vietnam, the book is a thoughtful rumination on various cultural forms—from novels and films to cemeteries and monuments, from photography and museum exhibits to video games and souvenirs—that have represented the war and carry different meanings depending on which side of the conflict you were on. Divided into sections on ethics, industries, and aesthetics, the book’s exploration of “just” and “unjust” ways of remembering and forgetting—and the importance of recognizing our own potential for inhumanity as well as our enemy’s humanity—offer a valuable road map for mutual healing and reconciliation.

 

Orhan Pamuk, A Strangeness in My Mind (Knopf: 2015)

This was a more pleasing choice for my reader’s group than the Chomsky book. I’ve been in love with Pamuk’s writing since Snow  (Knopf: 2004), one of the best novels of the century so far. “Strangeness” is a more difficult novel to read than “Snow”: as readers, we are required to occupy the mind not of a successful and highly educated poet but of an illiterate, working class boza seller who works the streets of Istanbul. Mevlut lacks any real sense of agency or entitlement, but we cheer him on regardless, for he is a hard worker who wants to do right by his family. Despite the fact that his youthful love letter to a beautiful girl ends up in the hands of her homelier sister—who thinks the letter is intended for her—he marries the second girl anyway and the two build a family until fate intervenes. The reader is grateful for the family chart that Pamuk provides before the text of the book begins, for it takes at least 200 of the book’s 584 pages to fully invest in these characters. But the effort is worth it: Pamuk’s narrative intention, around the brutal realities of lower class existence in Turkey and the evolving realities of urban life in Istanbul, is almost Dickensian in scale and perspective. One of Pamuk’s great strengths as a storyteller is the innocence of his characters. Mevlut does not fully grasp the conflicts facing Turkish society until he has gained the advantage of several decades’ wisdom. But even then, he is not bitter. As with Ka in “Snow”, there’s a refreshing lack of cynicism that is always reassuring to a reader weary of the times in which he lives.

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