The books in review 2015

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.

imageFunny 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
Huh. Cute.

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.

imagePurity – Jonathan Franzen
Pure something, all right. I’ve given up on Franzen. Let him work through his issues on his own time.

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

imageThe 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.

About rossmurray1

I'm Canadian so I pronounce it "Aboot." No, I don't! I don't know any Canadian who says "aboot." Damnable lies! But I do know this Canadian is all about humour (with a U) and satire. Come by. I don't bite, or as we Canadians say, "beet."
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27 Responses to The books in review 2015

  1. ksbeth says:

    after reading through your reviews, i’m thinking ‘where i belong’ is on my list for 2016. the rest ? we’ll see- happy new year, ross )

  2. Liz says:

    Ooh a good list! Life After Life is one of my favorites ever – but indeed so hard to describe the conciet. “She lives and dies and lives and dies and Hitler is involved but I swear it’s really brilliant!” Also “Won the Pulitzer. Not sure why.” had me actually LOL. Adding a few of these to my list – I’m about to embark on A Little Life, though I think I might hate it. A few books I read and loved this year were Fates & Furies, Euphoria, The Shipping News (finally, I know, and oh, Canada!), Everything I Never Told You. Ok this comment is long enough. BYE! Happy 2016 & happy reading!

  3. Where’s your review of 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight?

  4. BuntyMcC says:

    Thanks for the brief reviews. Of the two I’ve read, I couldn’t agree more. Purity, I quit – maybe 1/8 through and I loved Life after Life and the sequel, A God in Ruins. Nick Hornby has now gone onto my 2016 list. Happy reading in 2016, Ross and family.

  5. I read Funny Girl. I read so many books I can’t really remember each one too clearly but that one stuck in my mind. I enjoyed it but, if I recall correctly, the ending fell a little flat for me.

  6. Letizia says:

    Purity is my book club’s next selection…. hmmmm.

    Well, Ross, wishing you a wonderful 2016 full of laughter, love, and good books!

  7. List of X says:

    I just read a story that there is another, lesser known book called Girl On A Train (as opposed to The Girl On A Train), and people were buying it by mistake, yet they often were not disappointed with their mistake.

  8. pinklightsabre says:

    That’s too bad to hear that about Purity. Hasn’t he earned the right to work out his problems publicly? Has anyone? Sorry, just being provocative in this here comment box.
    Dawn likens Cloud Atlas to that kid’s comic/book thing called “Zoom” (a picture within a picture within a picture as the panes widen frame by frame) which I think is really brilliant, both her observation and as a possible premise. And the fact she came up with it sober.
    Happy New Year’s. That’s quite a list, makes me feel small. But I drank more than you in 15 and that could have something to do with it. You should see my list.
    Reading Yeats now and Dawn’s reading one of my Bill Bryson books I got from my mom at your reco. Hope your story idea is hatching, growing nails in the womb, hair, eyes, parts.

    • rossmurray1 says:

      Hey Bill! I know Zoom! It’s a thrilling little kids’ book that makes adults feel trippy. Ever come across The Mysteries of Harris Burdick by Chris Van Allsburg? That’s a great imagination-prompter for kids and adults.
      I’m picking away at Real Life Rock by Greil Marcus. It’s his collection of top 10 columns from 1984 to 2014. That’s sticking to your shtick. It’s a good reminder of how much pop culture comes and goes unnoticed, not to mention however sophisticated you think your musical knowledge is, there’s always some smart ass who knows more.
      Franzen can get stuffed.
      Happy New Year, time traveller.

      • pinklightsabre says:

        Thanks my friend – you sound well. Funny how we come to miss our online aliases and thumbnails. I hope your holidays were joyful, as is your January. We just worked out our budget and we’re pleased to be on track. I’m enjoying a dry January as it were, and some clarity here in Stratford-upon-Avon. Looking forward to making a coal fire later and doing some more reading and writing, polishing stones. Real Life Rock sounds cool, thanks for sharing with me. I have quite a clump of books my mom got me for 2016 which I’ll haul back to Seattle, end of April (those unfinished, that is). Bye for now.

        • rossmurray1 says:

          As an aside, I watched two films Friday and Saturday I’ve never seen before: A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, made almost exactly a year apart. It’s amazing what a year of fame, adulation, wealth and pot can do in a year.

  9. Karen says:

    Ok, I read none of these books. But I intended to read three or four. I just subscribed to Audible (an audio book service) as the 2016 plan involves listening to books while I run, because multi-tasking. Yeah, I’m not holding out much hope that this plan will work any better than all the others from preceding years.

  10. Just now back from a holiday. You’re welcome! You and Bill are men’s men. I wouldn’t touch that book. In fact, I don’t think I’d touch ANY of his books. Did you see the film based on him? Maybe that’s as close as I’ll get. Franzen and Wallace can both go jump off a cliff for all I care. Oh…wait…one of them already did. Can we assume your lack of commentary (silence) is you not having anything nice to say at all? Thanks for this list. I’m always looking for stuff to read.

  11. Trent Lewin says:

    Tom King’s my man, he taught a course at the uni I went to, and I managed to get in after shamelessly working on my writing portfolio to make it look like I’d slapped it together in a couple of days. Intimidating as hell to listen to him talk about writing – not how to do it, but what it means. Great guy, and a great Canadian writer – scratch that, just a great writer period.

    It occurs to me that I need to read more… thanks for the list, and happy new year Ross.

  12. Ahdad says:

    So besides reading, what else do you do?

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