After a first pandemic year in which I buried myself in novels and non-fiction for much of the time I wasn’t working, I didn’t expect to read more books in 2021. But that’s what happened. What follows is a sampling, with the usual eclectic mix of subject matter. If you’re looking for titles about the world’s biggest health issue, though, you’ve come to the wrong place: I didn’t read a single book about the pandemic. No dystopian plague novels, no books about epidemiology, vaccines, or rapid testing, and nothing about herd immunity, anti-vaxer/anti-masker conspiracy theories, or anything otherwise COVID-related. My 2021 reading time was a break from all that.
Reconciliation: Doing the learning
Back in May, a national outcry about the horrific legacy of residential schools, prompted by the discovery in Kamloops of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children (the total number across Canada reached 1,300 by September), led many non-Indigenous people to look in the mirror and reconsider what we thought we knew about Indigenous realities. On September 30, observed for the first time as Canada’s National Day of Truth and Reconciliation, I posted an essay about The Gatherings: Reimagining Indigenous-Settler Relations (University of Toronto Press, 2021). Produced by a collective of Indigenous and non-Indigenous writers, these testimonials about cross-cultural meetings that took place three decades ago reveal much about the hard work required to break barriers and build lasting and meaningful relationships between Indigenous communities and their allies…Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative (House of Anansi Press) was another good read. Selected for the 2003 CBC Massey Lectures series, it’s still relevant two decades later. This is partly due to King’s uniquely North American perspective on the power of storytelling: his understanding of U.S. and Canadian settler histories, cultures, and institutions—like that of the land itself—recognizes no frontier between our nation states. How did all those colonial narratives suppress Indigenous stories, anyway, and what got lost? King, with his trademark wit and eloquence, tells all.
This year’s political memoir was Indian in the Cabinet: Speaking Truth to Power (Harper Collins, 2021), Jody Wilson-Raybould’s personal account of her shooting star political career as the first Indigenous woman appointed federal justice minister and attorney general of Canada. What should be a triumphant story about the early days in what ought to have been a long career in government instead becomes a chronicle of disillusionment and lament as Wilson-Raybould recalls how her time in cabinet was halted after just three years. Most Canadians are aware of the political power play that ended her career as a Minister of the Crown, and most are sympathetic to the principled stance she took in upholding the integrity of her office: her decision not to grant a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC Lavalin and her refusal to cave under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to change her mind. It was a tawdry episode in which the feminist and pro-Reconciliation Justin Trudeau, after dropping Wilson-Raybould as justice minister/AG, appointed her to Veterans Affairs before booting her and ally Jane Philpott from the Liberal caucus. The author’s account of her diminishing cred with the PMO the longer the stalemate continued makes for sad reading, as does her account of sexist, misogynistic, racist and colonial behaviour among certain caucus colleagues, other MPs and Parliament Hill staff.
It’s an indictment of our system that a non-partisan Indigenous rights activist committed to truth-telling should flame out so quickly in the hyper-partisan, white male-dominant snake pit of Ottawa power politics. Wilson-Raybould has every right to be angry, never mind shattered, that her own power and ability to advance legislation that makes life better for Indigenous people across Canada has been stripped away. What’s harder to fathom is her apparent surprise on learning that campaign platforms are all about getting elected. How could someone with experience in both legal and Indigenous leadership circles—places hardly devoid of the cynical power play or dubious motive—have placed so much credulity in her “shared values” with Trudeau before the 2015 election, or been so blinded by Le Dauphin’s smarmy platitudes about “doing politics differently”? Indian in the Cabinet was published six days before the September 20 election, which Wilson-Raybould chose not to contest in Vancouver-Granville after serving only two years as an Independent MP. But her thoughts on good governance and our most urgent issues—racial justice and equality, pandemic response and recovery, and sound climate change strategy—sound a lot like a campaign platform. Perhaps the activist known as Puglaas (a Kwak’wala term meaning “woman born to noble people”) is biding her time for a comeback.
Why include an editor’s how-to manual on this list? Apart from its practical value, the late Gregory Younging’s Elements of Indigenous Style: A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples (Brush Education, 2018) is also a pretty good read. Even at a modest 154 pages, the book is packed with examples that, for most non-Indigenous writers and editors, confirm our need to self-educate: everything from the usage of terms (words like “band,” “tribe,” and “self-government” are no longer appropriate in most contexts) and under which circumstances consultation with Indigenous sources must occur, to the gap between Traditional Knowledge and intellectual property laws. A commitment to cultural and historical accuracy when writing about people different from oneself should go without saying. It’s about respect.
China and Myanmar: Bullying with impunity
It was quite the year for Canada-China relations: from that final act in the hostage-taking of the two Michaels, Spavor and Kovrig (the Canadian businessmen’s tit-for-tat release from a Chinese prison after the Americans dropped their extradition request for detained Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou) to the resignation of Canadian ambassador Dominic Barton, who urged greater trade ties despite the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime’s increasing authoritarianism and human rights abuses—not to mention its harassment and intimidation of Chinese Canadians on Canadian soil. Then there was the CCP’s continued bullying of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, typified by the recent arrest of six journalists and the 36-hour detention of activist/singer Denise Ho, a Canadian citizen. If you’re not yet convinced of Canada’s dwindling leverage in bilateral relations with the People’s Republic, or still think it’s racist to condemn the Xi Jinping government and its overseas enablers, two books might help change your mind.
Former Vancouver Sun reporter Sam Cooper’s Wilful Blindness: How a Network of Narcos, Tycoons and CCP Agents Infiltrated the West (Optimum Publishing International, 2021) is a dizzying ride through the shadowy world of international money laundering, tax evasion, immigration fraud, real estate speculation, and drug trafficking funneled through Vancouver, Canada’s gateway to the Pacific. Cooper’s research sheds light not only on the foreign criminals in our midst—the billionaire businessmen doing deals in Richmond casino parking lots—but also on Canadian politicians of all stripes who’ve been compromised (if not fully corrupted) by CCP influence peddlers, and the failure of government and law enforcement to put the brakes on all this (B.C. Attorney General David Eby and a few heroic investigators being notable exceptions). Wilful Blindness was clearly rushed into print and needed a better proofread: it’s littered with typos and minor errors (Eby is once referred to as an MP instead of an MLA). That said, the author’s work documenting The Vancouver Model of money laundering—and the CCP’s corporate and industrial espionage in Canada—is a sobering reminder of how vulnerable our democratic institutions have become to international white collar crime.
Veteran foreign correspondent Jonathan Manthorpe’s Claws of the Panda: Beijing’s Campaign of Influence and Intimidation in Canada (Cormorant, 2019) does a good job of explaining how all the above could occur right under our noses. It starts with Canada’s diplomatic relationship with China, and its evolution over the past half century since Pierre Elliot Trudeau’s 1973 visit to Beijing. Thanks to Canadian naivete, argues Manthorpe, Chinese officials have repeatedly schooled us in the art of guanxi: “the essential Chinese survival tool of using every available connection to game the system” so that even seemingly innocuous initiatives such as student exchange programmes tilt the scales toward the CCP’s advantage. Claws of the Panda reveals the extent to which Chinese government influence has infiltrated Canadian politics, academia, and media to shape Canadian public policy for the CCP’s benefit—all while Beijing continues to monitor and intimidate Chinese Canadians who, being dissidents, refuse to do the CCP’s bidding.
For the land known as Myanmar (Burma), 2021 was a horrible year. The February 1 coup, which overthrew the elected government of former democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, returned the country to military dictatorship only ten years after the first elections ended half a century of it. The nightmare continues: according to the latest count by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, the Burmese army, or Tatmadaw, has killed 1,398 civilians, arrested 11,328 and jailed 8,376 while issuing arrest warrants for nearly two thousand more. In the process, the Tatmadaw has spread its terror to all the ethnic border areas, dropping bombs from helicopters and burning impoverished villagers alive. In a just world, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his higher ranking military colleagues would be brought before the International Criminal Court and convicted of crimes against humanity for this year’s atrocities alone. But the Tatmadaw’s biggest crime, an endless terror campaign going back several decades, has been its ethnic cleansing efforts in Rakhine (Arakan), where state genocide targeting Rohingya Muslims has been relentless.
The two best books on this subject are Spanish journalist Carlos Sardiña Galache’s The Burmese Labyrinth: A History of the Rohingya Tragedy (Verso, 2020) and London-based journalist Francis Wade’s Myanmar’s Enemy Within: Buddhist Violence and the Making of a Muslim ‘Other’ (Zed Books, 2019). Drawing from years of research and interviews, Sardiña Galache and Wade paint heartbreaking portraits of a country where the ethnic and religious majority, Bamar (Burman) Buddhists, became enthralled with a form of nationalism that privileged the dominant culture while fostering an insidious xenophobia that was bound to vilify a religious and ethnic minority with contested claims to citizenship. This fact explains the National League for Democracy’s support of Tatmadaw activities in Rakhine State during the party’s brief civilian rule—including Suu Kyi’s appearance at the International Court of Justice, only weeks before the Army deposed and arrested her, to deny claims of genocide and defend the generals who would soon bring her down. Now seventy-six and languishing in prison with no hope of governing again, the faded Nobel laureate must be wondering if all those years of sacrifice—being prevented from attending her dying husband’s bedside in England or seeing their two sons grow into adulthood, the hundreds of speeches and rallies about the promise of democracy, the nearly two decades of house arrest, the fruitless effort to get the Tatmadaw out of politics through a Constitutional amendment and, finally, her own Faustian bargain not to push the Tatmadaw too hard—were worth it in the end.
Diversions and distractions
Nanaimo Girl (Cormorant, 2020) would seem the perfect title for a memoir by international jazz performer and recording artist Diana Krall, my hometown’s most famous export. Instead, that title belongs to the autobiography of one Prudence Emery—someone not famous but who nonetheless had a great story to tell about hobnobbing with the stars. Emery’s tale is that of an adventurous spirit who, after growing up in a conservative family in a small Vancouver Island town during the 1940s and 50s, relies on her charm and wits to leave it all behind and forge a glamorous life in New York, London, and Hollywood, a seemingly endless party circuit befitting a film publicist during the 60s, 70s and beyond. From Noel Coward and Louis Armstrong to Jennifer Lopez and Matt Damon, the author satisfies the name-dropping and dirt-dishing requirements of such a memoir. But some of her decisions along the way—she boasts of being a scab during a strike at the Globe and Mail, and personal relationships tend to fall by the wayside as she pursues better opportunities—leave the reader yearning for more insight about her choices. As for the Hub City? Our hometown is well drawn in Emery’s account of her childhood years. Once she’s left it, though, Nanaimo disappears. I was hoping for a second look from hindsight, perhaps with a return visit at age eighty.
If you were a gay man of a certain age in Canada or the U.S. during the 1980s, you knew someone like Ruth Coker Burks: a straight woman who, with strong nurturing instincts and a sense of social justice, was not only a friend to drag queens and disco bunnies but was willing to drop all she was doing to help gay men suffering from AIDS, from hospital visits and home care to community fundraising and government lobbying. The ultimate ally, such a woman could typically be found in large numbers in cities with significant gay populations. But in America’s deep south in 1986, such a woman paid for her compassion with public shunning, disapproval by family and employers, and rejection by hospital workers. In All the Young Men: A Memoir of Love, AIDS, and Chosen Family in the American South (Grove Press, 2020, with Kevin Carr O’Leary), Coker Burks recounts her journey as a young single mother from Hot Springs, Arkansas who goes from not knowing a single gay person to befriending several young gay men in her community, becoming caregiver and advocate to the ill, attending AIDS funerals, and otherwise stepping in to help where others feared to tread. An inspiring tale of love and courage in the face of bigotry.
Martin Amis is one of the last of the early Boomer British novelists still kicking, a literary lion whose nasty triumphalist wit once put fear into the hearts of rivals. It’s been years since I’ve read him, so I couldn’t resist picking up Inside Story: A Novel (Knopf, 2020), a late-life elegy to his dearly departed best friend, Christopher Hitchens, his fictional mentor Saul Bellow, the poet Philip Larkin, and long-lost lovers. The fact he doesn’t put “non-fiction” in front of “novel” in the title is merely a tease. We all know this is a memoir dressed up with artful scene-making and Amis’s playfully confessional tone (and with selected women’s names changed to protect the not-so-innocent). A writer’s writer, Amis shares many lessons of the calling while dishing the dirt on his influences, including Graham Greene. (On re-reading his work forty years after revering it, Amis declares that Greene “could hardly hold a pen”, had a verbal surface that was “simply dull of ear”, and pursued plots and narrative arrangements that “tend[ed] to dissipate into the crassly tendentious.” Meow!)
Hockey, JFK, true crime
In June of 1994, as the Vancouver Canucks were playing in the Stanley Cup finals, former Canucks executive and then-National Hockey League vice-president Brian Burke was asked by a New York reporter what he thought of something I had written about Canucks superstar Pavel Bure. Were the Canucks—and, by extension, the NHL—missing the boat by failing to market the drop-dead gorgeous Russian Rocket in the gay community? Burke’s five word brush-off (“I’m just a hockey guy”) made it clear that, in his mind, there was no connection—no meeting place—between the subject of homosexuality and the game he had lived and breathed his entire life. Fifteen years later, he would learn otherwise when his own hockey-playing son came out of the closet. From that moment on—and especially after Brendan was killed in a car accident soon after his story broke—the man friends call “Burkie” picked up the cause of LGBT+ diversity in sport: making speeches, attending Pride parades and, with his other son Patrick, starting an organization, “You Can Play,” that promoted hockey as a safe space for queer folk. This was quite the teachable moment for a straight-talking, cigar-chomping, hyper-heterosexual male such as Burke, who once famously demanded “pugnacity, testosterone, truculence and belligerence” from his players.
In recent years he has become something of a media superstar, frequently interrupting yet another broadcasting gig so he can sign on as GM or president of one contending team or another. (He’s currently with the Pittsburgh Penguins.) In the risk-averse world of NHL publicity, where the average player or executive interview can put one to sleep within moments, the irascible Irishman’s frank, no-nonsense style can be a breath of fresh air. Also: being more sophisticated than Don Cherry means that his politically incorrect opinions tend to land better. So when I picked up Burke’s Law: A Life in Hockey (Penguin, 2020, with Stephen Brunt) as a supermarket impulse buy, I was expecting more of the same. It’s there alright, along with an overabundance of ‘F’ bombs, but there are few surprises. Burkie hates journalists like Steve Simmons in Toronto and Tony Gallagher in Vancouver, but he likes NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. And, predictably enough, he defends fighting in hockey. I wonder if he’s read CBC reporter Jeremy Allingham’s Major Misconduct: The Human Cost of Fighting in Hockey (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2019). Allingham interviews retired NHL pugilists who describe the toll that fighting has taken on their post-hockey lives, from the long-term impacts of post-concussion syndrome to the mental health challenges that jeopardize personal relationships. “Hockey does not need to be sold on hate and rivalries anymore,” says two-time Stanley Cup champion Daniel Carcillo in the book’s Foreword. “I believe that the younger generation wants to see skill and speed over violence and hate.” Carcillo’s right, but the NHL is too stubborn—or stupid—to ban fighting.
Fifty-eight years after the event, is there anything left to learn about the JFK assassination? Any new information to solve the mystery and finally discredit the Warren Commission, which concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald did all the shooting and planned the whole thing himself? Probably not—unless those remaining documents withheld by the CIA “for reasons of national security” turn out to reveal something more sinister than incompetence for the Agency’s failure to track Oswald’s movements as an “asset” before November 22, 1963. But since we know there was some sort of conspiracy—the U.S. House Select Committee on Assassinations concluded as much in 1979—that seems a pretty big “unless”. Today we know enough about ballistics to tell the difference between bullets in a bolt-action rifle like Oswald’s and the kind of exploding bullet that shattered the president’s skull and left fragments in his brain. We’ve seen the Zapruder film and noticed how JFK’s head and shoulders jolt backward and to the left after the fatal shot. And we know the Warren Commission ignored multiple eyewitness accounts of a gunshot and puff of smoke coming from behind the picket fence above the grassy knoll. So we know it couldn’t all have happened from that sixth-floor window of the Texas School Book Depository. We just don’t know who that second shooter was, who planned the hit, or why.
Countless books have been published on this subject, few of them good. Once you dismiss the nutbar theories and rule out the Russians and Fidel Castro as possible culprits, you’re left with the mob and rogue elements of the CIA. A few years ago, I read David Talbot’s The Devil’s Chessboard: Allen Dulles and the Rise of America’s Secret Government (Harper Perennial, 2015), a gripping account of the CIA’s growth from the World War II Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the advent of covert operations, and the creepy leadership of director Dulles, who Kennedy fired after the Bay of Pigs fiasco and, after the assassination, got himself appointed to the Warren Commission. In 2021, I read Jefferson Morley’s The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2017). One of Dulles’s top henchmen, Angleton was the CIA’s counterintelligence chief from 1954 to 1974 and a key figure in the assassination. Morley, while tracing his contact with Oswald in the weeks before Dallas, reveals that other CIA officials working with Angleton—later director Richard Helms, case officer David Atlee Phillips (introduced to Oswald as “Maurice Bishop”) and future Watergate burglar Howard Hunt, among others—knew more about what happened in Dealey Plaza than they would ever admit. Forensic historian Patrick Nolan’s CIA Rogues and the Killing of the Kennedys: How and Why US Agents Conspired to Assassinate JFK and RFK (Skyhorse, 2013) covers more of this ground, expanding its scope to the RFK assassination. Helms, an amoral master of clandestine operations, emerges as a key figure in both cases. An expert in organizing hits without the Agency being blamed, he has since been exposed for his lies—including a statement to the Select Committee that Oswald had no contact with the CIA. Perhaps we’ll learn more once President Joe Biden or a successor authorizes the release of those remaining documents.
History of Violence (Picador, 2019) is Édouard Louis’s follow-up to The End of Eddy, the French author’s debut memoir I raved about in a previous reading-year-in-review (about the trials of a working class gay boy who escapes his tortured upbringing in suburban industrial France to forge a new life in Paris immersed in literature and academia). In History, a disturbing reflection on race and privilege, Louis recalls the night he picked up an African man and, after taking him to his apartment where the two men had consensual sex, he was then violently raped and nearly killed by his guest after a misunderstanding about his missing cell phone. Described as “a nonfiction novel in the tradition of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood,” this book once again showcases Louis’s unflinchingly raw, sensual style. The account of his ambivalence in reporting the crime—reinforced by the racism and homophobia of investigating police officers—is unforgettable, as is his defense of his impoverished assailant in the face of social injustice…Speaking of Capote, the above comparison reminded me that I had yet to experience his masterpiece. After finally reading In Cold Blood (Vintage, 1994 edition), I can report that a book first published in 1965 as an exemplar of the New Journalism has aged rather well. Capote’s rendering of the brutal and senseless killing of the Clutter family after a botched home invasion at their Kansas farm—and the contrast he draws between their sheltered, happy lives and the grim, hopeless universe of their killers—still has much to tell us about class, upbringing, and the value of a human life.
Janet Malcolm, who died on June 16, was best known as a writer about writing. Her New Yorker essays, such as those on Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, were often bold experiments in literary criticism. So a few months ago, when I came upon The Journalist and the Murderer (Vintage, 1990), I eagerly gobbled it up after reading the opener: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows what he does is morally indefensible.” Malcolm’s subject was the ethical swamp of gaining a source’s trust only to screw them with the published version of their story: in this case popular non-fiction writer Joe McGinniss, who lived with the defense team of military doctor Jeffrey MacDonald while the latter was on trial for the murders of his two daughters and pregnant wife. Despite quickly arriving at his own conclusion that MacDonald was guilty, McGinniss pretended to support the man’s claims of innocence to gain his trust and ensure access to the story, which he ultimately published as a true crime book, Fatal Vision. (MacDonald sued him after the book came out.) Malcolm, interviewing all the players involved in the case, deftly examines the psychopathology of journalism—including the uneasy relationship between journalist and subject.
Vancouver Vice: Crime and Spectacle in the City’s West End (Arsenal Pulp Press, 2021) is Vancouver writer, historian, and musician Aaron Chapman’s fifth book about various aspects of the city’s night life. In uncovering its seedy criminal underbelly, Vancouver Vice explores the development of the West End over the twentieth century: the neighbourhood’s growing reputation as a destination for free-wheeling singles and gay men as the high rise towers begin filling the landscape, and the local tensions that build as the nightclubs, drugs, and sex trade begin to make their presence known. Chapman’s narrative, drawing from retired vice squad sources from the Vancouver Police Department, accelerates as he gets into the 70s and 80s and reveals some of the key players in the city’s criminal underworld—including the unfortunate pimp who, in the book’s opening scene, turns up dead and stuffed in the trunk of a car parked at Lost Lagoon. It’s a slim volume at 153 pages, leaving the reader wanting more, and Chapman draws heavily from two retired vice cops for his material. But then, thanks to them, this book might just get optioned for film rights.
History and Politics
The Magician, by Colm Tóibín (McLelland & Stewart, 2021): Unlike the narrative treatment for his portrait of Henry James in The Master, Tóibín in his latest novel takes a more linear, chronological approach with the life of Thomas Mann. With a narrative arc that covers sixty years, he creates a fascinating study of twentieth century intellectual life. The basic facts about Mann—his large and chaotic family, his repressed homosexuality, his early success and Nobel Prize, his flight from Nazi Germany—are well known. But in focussing on Mann’s evolving relationships with his wife and children, the estrangements that occur as their respective sensibilities around civic duty and obligation grow further apart, Tóibín reveals the tensions between private life and public expression when the zeitgeist fails to meet expectations.
The Committed, by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, 2021): This sequel to The Sympathizer (2015) is another romp of a gangster thriller, this time bringing “the man of two minds” to Paris, where he and his blood brother Bon become involved in the drug trade while trying to reinvent themselves after “re-education” in Vietnam. Despite their efforts to assimilate into French culture, they can never completely escape their pasts. Nguyen is a master at rendering the cultural clashes of East and West, and the conflict between neo- and post-colonial mindsets, with electrifying prose that can horrify and amuse all at once.
Petra, by Shaena Lambert (Random House Canada, 2020): This historical novel is inspired by the story of Petra Kelly, charismatic leader of the original Green Party in Germany. An odyssey of love, jealousy, idealism, and disillusionment at the height of the Cold War, Petra features a love triangle in which Kelly’s jilted lover is the narrator. In real life, Kelly died in a murder-suicide when she was killed by her much older lover, fellow Parliamentarian Gert Bastian; in the novel, Kelly’s older love interest, NATO general Emil Gerhardt, shocks the establishment by joining her cause and supporting her bid to keep nuclear missiles off West German soil. Will their political and romantic relationship survive? Are there skeletons in Emil’s closet about his World War II activities? You won’t stop reading until you find out.
Atacama, by Carmen Rodríguez (Roseway Publishing, 2021): Another historical novel, this one is set in Chile during the first half of the twentieth century and follows the intertwining stories of two people from vastly different backgrounds who are both committed to social justice and the life-sustaining power of writing and art. Inspired by a death bed confession from the author’s mother, who revealed to Rodríguez and her siblings that their grandfather had orchestrated a massacre of peasants on Peruvian soil in 1925, Atacama turns that story into an epic struggle against fascism in which the pursuit of truth and justice transcends blood ties and class allegiances. Manuel Garay is the son of a communist miner and union leader, Lucia Céspedes the daughter of a fascist army officer and socialite. Although they rarely appear together in this fast-paced narrative during their respective journeys from age twelve to middle age, Manuel and Lucia grow closer in their humanity as they struggle to bring Ernesto Céspedes to justice—and avoid his wrath for their efforts.
Culture and Memory
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, by Ocean Vuong (Penguin, 2019): This enchanting debut novel provides yet more evidence that poetic talent can be good for one’s prose. Vuong, a recipient of the 2019 MacArthur “Genius” grant and winner of the T.S. Eliot Prize, chose the second-person voice to craft a fictional letter from a gay Vietnamese American son to his single mother, who cannot read. Such a narrative approach, with the plot elements of immigrant experience, can provide much opportunity for evocative passages, and there are many here. From the pain of learning family secrets from Vietnam to the tastes and smells of America—including the memory of bringing a handsome farm boy to climax while watching a New England Patriots game on television—Vuong’s voice is at once intimate and universal.
Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012): This year’s selection for That-Novel-I-Should-Have-Read-A-Decade-Ago, Indian Horse is the harrowing tale of an Ojibway man’s private hell growing up in a residential school and his seeming salvation on the ice rink as a gifted hockey player. Saul Indian Horse, beginning his story in a treatment centre’s healing circle, takes us back to his childhood where he recalls the wisdom of his grandmother. From the moment they are separated, Saul’s entire existence becomes a constant struggle to keep his spirit alive. This beautifully written story of resilience, which became a 2017 film co-produced by Clint Eastwood, is obviously a great Survivor novel. It is also on my top ten list of hockey novels.
How to Pronounce Knife, by Souvankham Thammavongsa (McClelland & Stewart, 2020): Souvankham Thammavongsa is another poet who can switch effortlessly to fiction. Drawing from her own life as someone who was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand and raised in Toronto, she has filled the stories in How To Pronounce Knife with characters who struggle to adapt to unfamiliar territory. Her voice is unyielding in its fierceness throughout, but it’s also full of dark humour in stories like ‘Randy Travis’ (about her mother’s obsession with the country singer, which becomes her own) and ‘Chick-A-Chee!’ (about the Asian immigrant experience of Halloween in Canada). Thammavongsa is working on her first novel, which I think I’ll read.
Bangkok Burning, by Robin Newbold (Conrad Press, 2021): Newbold, a journalist colleague and bar pal from my Thailand days, seems to have found a niche—or his own genre—with the Gay Farang Misadventure Thriller. Focussed on Bangkok gay nightlife, this genre features hapless white protagonists who travel to the Land of Smiles to escape their boring Western lives, and then—unprepared for the protocols and mysteries of Thai culture that await—proceed to bumble their way through a series of romances, rivalries, and accidental brushes with criminal activity before barely escaping with their lives. Newbold—who has a flair for dialogue, scene-setting and viciously cynical humour—has produced a trilogy of these novels. Bangkok Burning is the best of the three, building in suspense and character development while highlighting the worst aspects of foreign presence in Thailand. Newbold’s protagonist, the miserably married, forty-year-old closet case Graham Floyd (more like “Graham Flawed”), is a thoroughly unsympathetic figure who deserves every misfortune that befalls him. But still we keep reading, like a voyeur in a Patpong peep show, because we want to find out what happens to him.