Friday, January 6, 2012

Favourite adult books of 2011

The Meagre Tarmac: Stories by Clark Blaise - This was my year to read short stories, apparently; see Selecky, below.... Blaise has been on my must-read list for years, now, thanks to Professor Dorsinville at McGill. I was intrigued especially by this recent book when I read that some characters in it made appearances in a novel by Blaise's wife (novelist Bharati Mukherjee). A review in the Globe, including the following excerpt from a previous work, clinched it:

"E.M. Forster, you ruined everything,” laments the narrator of a story from Clark Blaise’s first collection of short fiction, published almost 40 years ago. “Why must every visitor to India, every well-read tourist, expect a sudden transformation?”

..... a Forster reference?... how could I ignore Blaise any longer?

This collection of stories focuses on immigrants arriving in North America from the Indian subcontinent. There are family secrets, schisms, skeletons in the closet, and a fair bit of humour mixed in here as well. To quote the Globe again, Blaise's greatest strength here is his "ingenious use of this hybrid form (in which the reader knows characters through other stories in a way the characters themselves do not) to mirror the experience of the people he writes about: the Indian immigrants who are often entangled in several stories – several histories – simultaneously."

Half-blood Blues by Esi Edugyan - Reading this made me miss reading James Baldwin; it made me want to dig out Go Tell It On The Mountain or "Sonny's blues." I'm not saying it's that good, but it has definite promise. The novel itself interweaves two storylines, as well as the drama of World War II in Europe, the jazz age, and even includes a passing reference to Montreal. In the core storyline, jazz bassist Sidney “Sid” Griffiths reflects back on life as a good, not great, musician, and discovers some surprising news about a wartime colleague, the young mixed-race trumpeter Hieronymus “Hiero” Falk. The second strand of the narrative is set in Berlin and Paris in 1940, and finds Hiero, Sid and their friends making (what later becomes) musical history to the backdrop of increasing racism and the rise of the Third Reich in Paris and Berlin. Compelling reading.

Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt - Scroll down to the last entry in this blog post for a full review.

When She Woke by Hillary Jordan - This is my 2011 un-put-down-able title!!! Seriously, thanks a lot Sharron (said sarcastically) - I couldn't concentrate at work all day one day because I was halfway through this and couldn't stop thinking about it! This is a re-writing of The Scarlet Letter, set in a dystopian future. The southern United States have devolved into a radically conservative society, in which criminals are punished not by jail time, but by having their skin dyed a certain colour (based on the seriousness of their crime). Our narrator, Hannah Payne, is a murderer (of her unborn child, the product of a relationship she refuses to tell the authorities about), and is therefore a Red when she wakes up from "surgery." Forced to live on society's fringes, desperate to re-connect with her family and her lover, Hannah has to make some tough choices about her past, her religious beliefs, and her future. Extra credit to the author for planting a sympathetic, progressive woman minister near the end of the book.

Heads You Lose by Lisa Lutz - You might know Lisa Lutz from the funny and dark Spellman mysteries; Heads you lose is also a mystery, this time co-authored by her ex-boyfriend, David Hayward. Lutz and Hayward have a history of, shall we say, disagreeing .... They begin to co-author with the intent to alternate chapters, offering feedback on the previous chapter at the same time. The book is ostensibly about siblings Paul and Lacey Hansen, a pot-growing pair of 20somethings. When they find a headless corpse on their property, they decide to move the body to avoid having the police discover their grow-up. One thing, and one body, leads to another.... Meanwhile, authors David and Lisa are busy dragging their old baggage out of the closet. Before long, they are arguing in the footnotes and killing off one another’s favourite characters. It's hard to decide which plot was more interesting – or absurd! This one is NOT for readers who want their stories tied up with tidy bows.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai - A 20something children's librarian, unsure what to do with her adult life, embarks on an impromptu roadtrip (or is it a kidnapping?) with one of her young patrons, a boy with an unhappy home life. Who is leading who in this adventure....? And why are they being followed? A funny, strange, and oddly warm and fuzzy read. Bonus points for chapter headings based on classic children's novels.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain - I totally didn't want to read this, because I read A Moveable Feast in my mid-teens and was highly influenced by it. I was afraid that this novel would ruin the picture I had in my head of the time that Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley, spent in Paris in the 1920s. I shouldn't have been worried - the novel captures Hadley's voice wonderfully, and presents a nuanced, complicated, and ultimately somehow uplifting portraits of the early days of a highly influential woman ... and her husband.

Where Children Sleep by James Mollison - A photo essay book consisting of portraits of children and their "bedrooms;" at left, Ahkohxet from Brazil, and his sleeping quarters. Mollison intended the book to be an exploration of children's rights from a different perspective. Deeply, deeply moving, and surprising in both wonderful and appalling ways.

This Cake Is for the Party: Stories by Sarah Selecky - I'm very proud of myself for reading two short story collections this year. Read my full review of Selecky's book here.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson - The titular Major lives in a cozy English town and has lef a fairly traditional, straight life, in keeping with his military training and his organised nature. His well-ordered life goes a bit off the rails, however, when he befriends Ms. Ali, a local shopkeeper. Before long, he is mixed up in all kinds of domestic drama, and the other townspeople are flummoxed by the new Major, with new friends and new opinions (or, frankly, any opinions). Adorable romance for the literate type who enjoyed Old Filth, with less of an edge.

(Favourite adult books of 2010 list here).

1 comment:

  1. Great choices Alex. I`ve read one, own two others and have another one out from the library. Some of the others are on my `want to read`list.