Let Me Be Frank With You – Richard Ford
Not much happens in Ford’s Frank Bascombe books, and this, the fourth, has the least going on of the lot, mostly encounters with acquaintances and loved ones in four separate stories. But as Frank ages, these encounters carry weight, for what else is there now at 68 to do but to try to spend one’s final days being a decent man; that’s a decent goal. Spring, summer, fall and now the winter of Frank’s search for contentment, the only sadness in this book is that there may be no seasons left for Ford to see Frank through.
Infinite Jest – David Foster Wallace
A marathon, a challenge, an exercise in patience, an eyewitness to a death-defying literary stunt, I embarked on this with Bill from Pink Lightsabre and lived to tell the tale. An exhausting and unforgettable book that lives up to its reputation for being “difficult.” Did I enjoy it? Sometimes immensely so. Other times I was crying with impatience. Will I read it again? Maybe, someday. But there are a lot of other books in line.
Funny Girl – Nick Hornby
Relaxed and mature Hornby, capturing not just a strong character but the era of early British television. Thanks to Mark from Exile on Pain Street for this autographed copy.
Us Conductors – Sean Michaels
This won Canada’s top literary prize, the Giller, about the inventor of the theramon. It was kind of flat. (See what I did there?)
The Fermata – Nicholson Baker
A giddy, unapologetically filthy book about a man who can freeze time and does so to take off women’s clothes. I dare you to accuse Baker of mysoginism; like his protagonist, he’s just having fun, and no one gets hurt. Ultimately, this is a book about art — with dirty parts in it.
Centuries of June – Keith Donahue
A murdered man is visited as he lies (well, sits at the edge of his bath actually) by the women he has wronged through the centuries. They tell their stories. Donahue has talent for the different styles of the eras but repeated lives and multiple eras are dealt with better in other books I read this year. (See Cloud Atlas and Life After Life.)
Dance Dance Dance – Haruki Murakami
All My Puny Sorrows – Miriam Toews
One of those authors you read and kick yourself for not reading sooner.
Barney’s Version – Mordechai Richler
I get cranky reading supposedly comic novels that clunk along trying to make the reader laugh. Richler didn’t give a shit if the reader laughed, which makes him so damn funny. This was a re-read, and even better than the first time.
Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant – Roz Chast
Dealing with your aging parents, as a comic book. As moving a book as you’re likely to read.
Wildfire – Richard Ford
The Rosie Project – Grant Samsion
Bark – Lorrie Moore
About a Boy – Nick Hornby
Know Your Beholder – Adam Rapp
Depressed agoraphobic ex-musician landlord. Not much of a pitch, and in truth, there isn’t a whole lot of activity in this book, save for one calamity. But Know Your Beholder is a slow burn. Stay with it and there are rewards to be had. Like noises heard through the tenants’ walls, there are some big ideas hovering underneath, but mostly this is a sound character study of a man dealing with loss and learning to be a grownup.
A Complicated Kindness – Miriam Toews
One of the funniest, saddest teenage characters I’ve read.
Nine Stories – J.D. Salinger
Dude could write.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night – Heather O’Neill
A Soldier of the Great War – Mark Helprin
This is a big book and a Big Book, a romantic novel and a Romantic Novel, a story of struggle and at times a struggle. In writing a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress through the war between death and beauty, Helprin is unapologetic in casting his hero as flawless and concocting cliffhangers fraught with daring do. Helprin’s craft in invoking wondrous imagery softens the didacticism of his quasi-religious philosophy, making A Soldier of the Great War a rollicking, beautiful and ultimately compassionate read.
Empire Falls – Richard Russo
Won the Pulitzer. Not sure why.
Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
Many readers are puzzled and frustrated by this book. Was I puzzled about its expanding and then collapsing tales that may or may not be connected? Sure, but I wasn’t frustrated. I’m not sure the puzzle is meant to be solved but admired. I certainly did, especially Mitchell’s ability to alter voice and style according to the story. This is the first of his books I’ve read. I’ll be back for more.
The Lowlands – Jhumps Lahiri
Lahiri’s spare prose is profoundly touching at times. How does she do that?
Identity – Milan Kundera
Life After Life – Kate Atkinson
In the hands of a less skilled writer, this might have been a tedious book — variations of a life, lived over and over. But Atkinson has the wit, the eye for detail and the compassion to pull this off. She manages to sustain our interest in the extended Todd family by truly humanizing her characters, even as they remain surprisingly consistent through the different versions of Ursula’s life. This is no It’s a Wonderful Life where one action or non-action changes everything; it only changes some things. Life After Life is a clever meditation on how capricious our lives actually are. The reader finds himself rooting for Ursula, dreading her death that, we realize, is inevitable — as it is for all of us.
Hocus Pocus – Kurt Vonnegut
The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins
Not exactly at the vanguard of feminist literature, is it? Another example of how book blurbs can be as unreliable as, well, reviews like this. Still, taken for what it is — a lightweight, highly readable thriller — it gets the job done.
The Inconvenient Indian – Thomas King
Non-fiction oveview of the “Indian problem” in North America, explained with bitter wit and not a single ounce of impartiality by novelist and activist King.
Man in the Dark – Paul Auster
Where I Belong – Allen Doyle
The lead singer of Newfoundland band Great Big Sea recounts growing up in tiny Petty Harbour. Anyone who’s lived in a small town will enjoy this. You don’t have to be a fan of the band to enjoy this lighthearted, easygoing account.