Every year before Christmas I scramble to remember which books would make the ideal gift. Maybe you’re the same. In which case, the top 10 books I read in 2013 (not necessarily books released in 2013) were:
· The Unwinding – George Packer
· The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill
· Love Goes to Buildings on Fire – Will Hermes
· Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn
· The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
· Intolerable – Kamal al-Soylalee
· I’m Your Man – Sylvie Simmons
· American Dervish – Ayad Akhtar
· The Submission – Amy Waldman
· Festival Man – Geoff Berner
Here’s what I read in the past 12 months, in order of reading. I wrote these reviews recently, not immediately afterwards.
I’m Your Man – Sylvie Simmons. A note-perfect bio destined to be the definitive portrait of Leonard Cohen—except that its subject shows no sign of slowing down.
American Dervish – Ayad Akhtar. Growing up Muslim in the ’80s in America, the secular teenage narrator is entranced by a conservative family friend from Pakistan. Combines so many genres perfectly: the coming-of-age novel, the second-generation immigrant child novel, the religious/secular divide, and being an outsider in White America.
Myth of the Muslim Tide – Doug Saunders. A welcome, thoroughly researched rebuke to the likes of Mark Steyn (whom I had to copy edit at my job for years), this mostly felt like an affirmation rather than a revelation. I shouldn’t be reading this; my father and his friends should.
Fifth Business – Robertson Davies. I read this in my mid-20s and hated it. What fuddy-duddy, ancient Canadian nonsense! Then my stepkid had to read it for her Grade 12 English course, and I figured I should help her out with what was sure to be a horrific punishment for any 21st-century 18-year-old to endure. And yet: I loved this book. Yes, the narrator is archaic, but he’s an entertaining racounteur detailing his lifelong competition with his nouveau riche frenemy. Even bigger surprise: the teenager liked it too (though I’m not sure she finished it).
Frankenstein – Mary Shelley. I tried to read this years ago; I loved it then, but had to abandon it for personal reasons (long story). Naturally, it deserves its classic status. The biggest surprise was how much of the book is actually narrated by the monster; indeed, that’s the heartbreaking core of the novel.
Intolerable – Kamal al-Soylalee. Normally I’m suspicious of people my own age writing memoirs, but Soylalee is a clear exception. He opens his book talking about how his mother grew up in a nomadic family in Yemen; he grew up with a successful businessman as a father in a Yemen that underwent a huge transformation within a generation. It wouldn’t be the last: in the last 40 years, Yemen slowly fell prey to fundamentalism, and Soylalee watched it rupture his own family, put his father out of business, and put pressure on his own sexual identity, which he first explores in Cairo, then London, and finally in Toronto. I’d highly recommend this even if you think you hate memoirs.
The Submission – Amy Waldman. An architectural competition is held for a new structure built on the site of a terrorist attack in New York City (9/11 is never mentioned). The submissions are anonymous, and the winner turns out to be a secular American Muslim (not a spoiler: that happens in the first five pages). A bonfire of vanities ensues. What could be a paint-by-numbers, ripped-from-headlines avalanche of obvious stereotypes is instead handled with great nuance for every corner of the cast of characters: a victim’s widow serving on the jury; the architect who refuses to engage in debate; the muckraking tabloid reporter; the illegal Bangladeshi widow who also lost a husband in the attack; the rabble-rousing anti-immigrant activist and her overzealous son. You’ll need to talk about this later: ideal for book clubs.
Life – Keith Richards. I avoided this for years; I am, at best, a casual Rolling Stones fan; at worst, I think they’re grossly overrated, did their best work as a disco band, and are decades overdue for retirement. And yet, yes, it’s true: I was as sucked in as anyone who might only know “Satisfaction.” I’ll give most of the credit to Richards’s ghost writer, James Fox, who maintains narrative focus and keeps a conversational tone that never rambles. As entertaining as much of this is, it’s also incredibly disturbing reading about how strung out he was while taking care of his small children.
The Believers (aborted) – Zoe Heller. I thought the movie Notes on a Scandal, based on a previous Heller book, was too campy by half, so I’m not sure why I tried to read this, a story of two generations of a left-wing New York City family who discover their ailing patriarch, a civil rights lawyer, fathered a child with a black lover. I didn’t care about any of these people, and by the time the plot twists I didn’t see the book getting any better. I gave up.
The Vanishers (aborted) – Heidi Julavits. The author is a co-editor of one of my favourite magazines, The Believer; her colleague Vendela Vida has written some of my favourite novels of the last decade (see: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name). But this was preposterous. The main character, who is studying to be a psychic, is trying to survive a “psychic attack” and is somehow sent on a search for a missing performance artist who may have a link to the narrator’s dead mother and… yep, I gave up. The fantastical conceit is fun at the beginning, but wears out its welcome quickly.
Iron Curtain (aborted) – Anne Applebaum. This tome is about why and how the populations of Eastern Europe lived under totalitarianism. I wanted it to be better than it was; I enjoy Applebaum’s (considerably shorter) journalism. Not sure if I would have stuck with this had I not had to return it to the library.
The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon. Set in Barcelona after the Spanish Civil War, this gripping adventure story does for bibliophiles what Scorsese’s Hugo did for cinephiles. The ghosts of the war are alive and active on the city streets, while a young bookseller tries to unravel the history of his favourite book—all other copies of which have mysteriously disappeared.
Boomerang – Michael Lewis. This follow up to the essential financial meltdown book The Big Short is a collection of Vanity Fair pieces from foreign locales that helped cause the crash: Ireland, Iceland, Greece and other locales that took a huge hit in 2008 due to an incredulous cast of clueless characters. If it was fiction, you wouldn’t believe it.
Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon. Woof. Great premise: two record-story owners, one black, one white, both with spouses who work as midwives. One profession is archaic and dying; the other is marginalized but expanding. An illegitimate child fuels the plot, and Berkeley, California is a character unto itself. But the writing is ridiculously overwrought; Chabon never uses one adjective when five will do, and the descriptive tangents are wearying. I only finished this book by speed-reading.
Some Great Idea – Edward Keenan. Toronto’s best municipal affairs columnist—if not best political columnist, period—delivers a recent history of Toronto via the mayoralties of Mel Lastman, David Miller and Rob Ford. Of course, having been released before the crack scandal, this feels a tad out of date—but it’s no less worthy, and there is plenty of excellent, empathetic material about the rise of Ford Nation, by one of the only journalists who took him seriously before 2010. Keenan knows exactly what works about Toronto and what doesn’t, and his love for the city is infectious. I can’t wait for his own mayoral campaign, whenever that may be.
Gone Baby Gone – Dennis Lehane. Last year I absolutely loved Lehane’s cops-and-Commies novel The Given Day, set in Boston in 1918, one of the finest historical narratives I’ve ever read. But it had been a while since I’d gone back to his earlier mysteries, and this was a welcome reminder that though he may be writing more “respectable” books these days, he’s an expert at the tight, taut mystery novel.
Detroit City is the Place to Be – Mark Binelli. There’s no shortage of books documenting the downfall of the once great city of Detroit. In this one, former Rolling Stone contributor moves back to his hometown to witness the decay and glimpses of rebirth, while offering a breezy litany of the leadership failures that led to the present day.
Oranges are the Only Fruit (aborted) – Jeannette Winterston. I had never read Winterston before her excellent 2012 memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? In it, she tells the true stories that inspired her hugely successful and much beloved 1985 debut novel. Turns out the true stories are far more fascinating, and Winterston is clearly a much better writer now than she was in her 20s (duh).
Going Clear – Lawrence Wright. An extensively researched, libel-proof exposé of Scientology, this remains unpublished in Canada due to legal concerns. Wright certainly doesn’t spare any detail outlining the delusion and damage at the core of this “religion,” and there’s plenty of juice about the fantabulist leader L. Ron Hubbard, the vanity of Tom Cruise, the walking contradiction of Paul Haggis and more. Among other things, it’s shocking how many people who rise to the top of this organization wind up excommunicated, including family members of leaders. The whole operation is sick. And yet: Wright manages to contextualize it and help us realize the appeal of Scientology to the psychologically damaged and desperate. What, really—other than say, ritual abuse, slavery and coercion—differentiates Scientology from other new religions of the modern world, or, for that matter, ancient religious sects (Catholic monks, Hasidic Jews) that also place seemingly abusive restrictions on their members. The climax of the book takes place in The New Yorker’s office, of all places, where the magazine’s fact-checkers square off against the top Scientologist spokesperson—who mysteriously resigns shortly afterwards.
I Would Die 4 U – Touré. This is not a Prince biography, but a series of essays about Prince’s influence on American culture, African-American culture, and ’80s music. Context isn’t everything, but it’s definitely entertaining when such a fascinating figure is at the centre.
Plutocrats – Chrystia Freeland. I’m a big fan of Freeland’s journalism, including the piece in The Atlantic this book was based on. Sadly, the premise fizzles when expanded to book length. Normally a sharp, concise writer, Freeland is surprisingly repetitious and bogged down with figures here. This was a huge disappointment. But now that she’s a Liberal MP, it will be fascinating to see what she’ll be able to do, if anything, in public office.
The Manticore – Robertson Davies. Buoyed by my late discovery of Robertson Davies, I figured I may as well go for the whole Deptford Trilogy. This book was, like most middle chapters of a trilogy, a half-step of only mild interest. I’m told World of Wonders is the kicker; I’ll get to that soon.
Life Itself – Roger Ebert. The death of Roger Ebert hit me hard. Ebert made me want to be a critic, someone who loved art, fell into rhapsody when it demanded superlatives, didn’t hesitate to call it out when it wasted his time or failed to live up to its truly magical potential. Someone who loved the same movies everyone else did, but was always curious about the corners, the margins, and placed those movies on the same pedestal as the blockbusters. His autobiography, on the other hand, doesn’t talk much about movies at all. Instead, it reveals Ebert to be a fabulous writer, period, no matter what he’s talking about: his quintessential American small-town upbringing in the ’50s, his battle with alcoholism, his love of the printed word and his adventures as a sportswriter for the student press and starting at the bottom in the big city of Chicago. Even when his subject matter is mundane and far removed from the monsters of fame, Ebert is a master raconteur.
Collusion – Stuart Neville. I really enjoyed this Irish thriller writer’s debut novel, The Ghosts of Belfast, a bloody revenge fantasy set after the uneasy peace of the Good Friday Agreement. This sequel is less successful; the characters are more broadly drawn, the violence is not as shocking, the suspense a tad trite.
The Baader-Meinhof Complex – Stefan Aust. We think terrorism is something that happens in foreign countries, or by foreigners invading our shores. The FLQ is an ancient history lesson in this country; the Weather Underground is an obscure chapter of the ’60s in the U.S. It’s safe to say that no one in North America thinks about Germany’s homegrown anarchist terrorist group of the 1970s, who embarked on a bombing and assassination campaign, studied with international terrorists, and most of the country scared shitless at the fact that their far-left politics resonated so widely. And they were led by a prominent, respected journalist who abandoned her family to live underground and on the run. Aust covered the story closely for Der Spiegel while it was happening, and is close to his sources; he’s not unsympathetic to the group’s ideals, but doesn’t romanticize the group in the least when they start to go right off the rails. A thorough, occasionally exhausting account of a time hard to imagine in a modern Western democracy.
My Way (aborted) – Paul Anka. I bought this for my dad, who loved the excerpt in Maclean’s. Anka does have some good stories, but never having cared about the Rat Pack, it’s not really up my alley. He’s also a bit too convinced of his own genius.
The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt. I can’t wait for the Coen Brothers to film this: an occasionally absurd, well-told yarn about two sibling assassins trying to retire in the 19th-century American west.
Kicking and Dreaming – Ann and Nancy Wilson. I don’t think Heart get enough credit for being not only the first hard-rock band led by two women, but also for Nancy’s guitar playing and Ann’s grossly underrated voice. Theirs is a great rock’n’roll tale, growing up as Army brats and relocating to Vancouver with their draft-dodger boyfriends to start Heart—and getting their first big break, opening for Rod Stewart in Montreal, after losing their van in a moose collision and being fired on the opening night of a week-long stint in Calgary.
Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn. Most great mystery writers excel within their genre; I suspect part of this novel’s massive crossover appeal is the fact that Flynn is a fantastic writer, period. Even when the plot veers off the rails (which doesn’t happen until at least halfway through), her characters are fascinating, believable and incredibly well-drawn. This is about a nightmare marriage that, despite the degree to which Flynn ratchets up the tension, contains poisonous seeds surely familiar to all couples—this is not a book you want to read at the same time as your spouse (as I did). To give away any of the plot would be a crime itself, but I do wonder if the author’s gender protects her from accusations of misogyny. Yes, both partners are loathsome and deceitful, but—well, read for yourself.
Festival Man – Geoff Berner. You need to buy this for every Canadian musician on your Christmas list. I reviewed it here.
The Book of Negroes – Lawrence Hill. This book is old news, of course, but it lives up to every accolade heaped upon it. Captivating, devastating. I was also happy to read it after seeing Lincoln and Django Unchained—both of which merely touch on the actual details of slavery beyond relatively abstract notions—and before the much more honest brutality of 12 Years a Slave. I feel like slavery is such a taboo in North American culture (was the Roots TV miniseries the last time anyone cared?) because its ramifications are still so painfully obvious—and also because the same moral issues apply in today’s global economy, though most of us prefer not to contemplate where our goods come from. Anyway: Hill’s book is not just great history, it’s a fascinating, essential read. But you probably knew that already.
Just Kids – Patti Smith. I read this before seeing Smith live for the first time, this fall at Massey Hall. (I reviewed that show here.) Everyone loves this book; I liked it well enough. It is a beautiful portrait of what it’s like to be young and in love with the idea of making art in the big city, and deciding to devote yourself entirely to the artist’s life. It’s incredibly romantic—and of course, for both Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, their careers worked out (despite the latter’s tragic early death). But honestly, I didn’t find Smith’s memoir any more or less inspiring than any other better-than-average rock bio—other than that, of course, she’s an excellent writer.
Dissident Gardens (aborted) – Jonathan Lethem. This was the second book this year I tried to read about a multi-generational family of New York City socialists. This was the better of the two, but I still ended up dumping it. Lethem creates plenty of fascinating characters—and then does nothing with them. He keeps harping on certain relationships and character traits, as if he’s either a) lazy or b) underestimating our attention span. Did no one edit this book?
The Basketball Diaries – Jim Carroll. I brought this light paperback with me on a trip to New York City. It was perfect for the occasion: best absorbed in small doses, before and after an exhaustive day walking around New York. There is zero character development or plot; when I picked it up again in Toronto it felt vacant and empty.
Love Goes to Buildings on Fire – Will Hermes. The world does not need another book about punk rock, especially the CBGBs scene. What it does need, however, is more music books like this one: rooted in not just an idea, but a geography, a contextual illustration of a time and place and the interconnectivities that drive a music scene. So, yes, Patti Smith and Television and Talking Heads and Suicide and Blondie are in here. But so is Philip Glass and Steve Reich. So is the Fania Records Latino neo-salsa scene. So is the Anthony Braxton free jazz scene. So is Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage and Studio 54 and the rise of disco. So is Bruce Springsteen. This is an incredible read for anyone who cares about both New York City history and music of all kinds.
Kicking the Sky – Anthony De Sa. If New York City had the Son of Sam creeping out the metropolis in the 1970s, Toronto had the Shoeshine Boy killer: the death of an 11-year-old Portugese boy at the hands of gay hustlers on Yonge Street, which prompted a moral outrage and, for previously peaceful Torontonians, the first time they locked their front doors at night. De Sa sets his book among the Portugese community in my neighbourhood, between Trinity Bellwoods and Bathurst, focusing on three young boys whose adolescence has a whole other level of confusion added to it.
The Unwinding – George Packer. Do you live in North America? Then you need to read this. What Packer calls “the unwinding” is the devolution of postwar middle-class America: in manufacturing, in neighbourhoods, in politics, in economics. Packer, a New Yorker feature writer, tells his story primarily through three characters: a Southern white man who has to constantly reinvent himself and eventually launches an ill-fated biodiesel company; a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio, who watches her town join the Rust Belt while addiction and murder plague her family and community; a political junkie who falls for Joe Biden, works on Wall Street, and witnesses one disappointment after another. Woven in between are vignettes about self-made models of individualism: Newt Gingrich, Oprah Winfrey, Sam Walton, Jay-Z, the libertarian utopians of Silicon Valley, and the foreclosure victims of Florida, all of whom in some way illustrate the new, winner-take-all America. The writing here is impeccable: Packer is a short-story writer with journalistic skills. There are no tangents involving facts and figures, no thesis he’s trying to explicitly pound home. It’s all show, no tell. It’s The Great American Novel, except it’s all true. Perhaps Packer’s most powerful skill, however, is managing to find inspiration and hope in his characters. The world portrayed here may be going to shit, but these characters still believe better tomorrows are possible.
Army of Lovers – Sarah Liss. One of Toronto’s finest music writers captures the life and times of Will Munro, an artist/activist/DJ/bon vivant who arguably transformed queer culture in Toronto and contributed to the Torontopian moment of the early 2000s. Despite the fact that Liss has written an oral history—an increasingly prevalent norm in pop culture non-fiction that I think is a bit of a cop-out—she makes a convincing case that her protagonist, whose life was cut short by brain cancer at the age of 35, was instrumental in influencing how a generation viewed their city and themselves—and loosened Toronto’s notoriously tight ass.
Wooden Stars: Innocent Gears – Malcolm Fraser. Sarah Liss’s book is part of Coach House’s Exploded Views series of small books meant to read like longer-form journalism, the kind rarely seen in magazines anymore. Likewise, Halifax’s Invisible Publishing has a series called Bibliophonic, each installment devoted to a Canadian band that would never get a larger book of their own. At least other bands in the series like NoMeansNo, the Deadly Snakes and the Dears had audiences; Ottawa’s the Wooden Stars, on the other hand, were always on the fringes of the fringes, and nearly impossible to describe. Fraser does his best to convey what he loves about the band, what made them unique, and how they inspired the Canadian members of Arcade Fire, among others. Myself, I never got this band, even though I know two of them, one of whose solo work (as Snailhouse) I enjoy very much; Fraser’s articulate enthusiasm makes me want to dive in and give them another shot. His book surprised me: for a band I wasn’t sure I wanted to read about, it’s a convincing, decent read. Also: because I left them out of the 2001 CanRock history book I co-authored, Have Not Been the Same, I’m really happy Fraser gave them their due.
Summertime, All the Cats Are Bored (aborted) – Philippe Georget. If a mystery book doesn’t grab me in the first 100 pages, I don’t see any reason to keep reading it. Everytime I picked up this book at bedtime, my lady would ask me, “What’s that book about, again?” “Um, I don’t remember.” Tip to author and/or translator (the book is French): Do not include the word “bored” in a title.
Mo’ Meta Blues – Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. There was no question that a Questlove memoir would be smart, funny, engaging and would appeal to music nerds of all stripes. But, much like the Keith Richards book, a lot of credit here has to go to the ghostwriter, New Yorker editor Ben Greenman, for crafting an effortless read from a man who admits he has zero free time in his life to write a book. Having the Roots’ manager, Richard Nichols, interject and provide footnotes that contradict the narrator, works surprisingly well. However, it still feels like Questlove left a lot out: starting with how he reconciled with his father, who always hated hip-hop. You’d think that would be a key part of the story.
The Silent Wife – A.S.A. Harrison. This bestseller is the first novel for Toronto’s A.S.A. Harrison, who died after submitting her final draft to her publisher. It has the slight misfortune of coming on the heels of Gone Girl, featuring a similar his/her narrative about a disintegrating and deceitful marriage. Harrison is perhaps as good a writer as Flynn, and the plot is tightly wound, but the characters are, frankly, ridiculous. Despite the story’s setting in Chicago, they are clearly Canadian: passive-aggressive to a fault, preferring to avoid conflict—no matter how obvious—until it blows up in their face. Worth reading, with several millilitres of salt.