Even as end-of-the-year booklists become absurdly thick on the ground (on the internet), BookThug elects, unapologetically, to add water to the sea. This time we move into the general’s tent, as BookThug’s distinguished editorial team share their best reads of 2014. If you’re interested in reading like an editor (or like an intern), read on!
Jay MillAr, Publisher
Jay MillAr: I’ll be honest and admit that it was difficult for me to come up with a list of books that I read this year but didn’t publish. Some of my favourite books were also listed by Hazel (who of course produced her list efficiently, while I agonized a little) as we often read books together to one another. Some of my favourite moments throughout my year of reading happened while listening with pleasure as Hazel read parts of Lisa Robertson’s Cinema of the Present or Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be or Robyn Doolittle’s Crazytown or Janey’s Arcadia by Rachel Zolf. This list of shared reading would be a list of it’s own, so I have decided stay away from them for the purpose of this list. I also found myself shying away from listing poetry, probably because I am partly to blame for curating BookThug’s poetry list and feel that I have already made a list of great poetry titles. So I wanted to choose some books that I recalled reading to and for myself, books that were memorable or inviting for their own reasons. So, knowing full well the inherent problems and issues that creating a list is heir to, here are my choices in no particular order:
Taipei by Tao Lin (Vintage, 2013)
JM: No other book I read this year made me so aware of style in prose writing, and in particular a style that is kind of like skimming your fingers along a touch screen — vaguely erotic and detached while simultaneously engaged, turning the reader into a sort of voyeuristic troll. On top of this, no other book has made me realize that a combined obsession with style and authorial biography can be pretty seductive, and this seems to be something of a new trend that I can see winning an unconscious battle with the imagination. I noted it in other recent books such as Guillaume Morissette’s New Tab, which works in a similar fashion but with not nearly the effect of Lin’s prose. Taipei is a highly successful and highly infuriating book. I also admittedly enjoyed the fact that there was Cancon, including visits to Drawn & Quarterly and Type Bookstores in Montreal and Toronto, and the mention of the Weakerthans’ album Fallow, which is described as being about “the Saskatchewan teeth crisis.”
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall (Vintage, 2011)
JM: I started running in January on a whim, mostly because I was feeling super low and “run down” (ha!) and needed some escape. After I’d been engaged for a few months, a friend — who is himself obsessed with running and Marathons and Iron Man competitions — recommended this book, and I found it highly engrossing. Ultimately, the book is an endorsement for barefoot running, which I think is ridiculous, but it also contained enough pseudo-science and ideas that I could then do further research into things that worked for me. Further to this, it also fuelled my natural inclination to mythologize human activity, whatever it might be, and it presented me with a cast of characters who simply love to run (my favourite is a couple who trained while listening to Beat poets and declared that they would simply keep running until it was no longer fun). Since I was not interested so much in competing as I was in simply seeing how far I could go, it fed my own obsession to just keep running. As I write this I can brag that I have recorded 1045km of running since 6 January 2014.
Oilywood by Christine Leclerc (Namados Literary Publishers, 2014)
JM: OK, so technically this is not a book, but a chapbook, and it is poetry, which I said I wasn’t going to list. However, this small book is politically engaged with big issues — big oil, corporate takeover, water, the “progress” of neoliberalism, First Nation rights, and so on. And so I want to give this book props for being so committed to an awareness of these things while operating outside the capitalist project of mainstream publishing, which is corporate, and is about making money regardless of the importance of the issue at hand. This is not a book that will receive the coverage or attention that a book like Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything will get, despite the fact that Oilywood did win the third largest national prize for poetry in this country. I also do not have visions of thousands upon thousands of people driving around in their cars listening audio versions of Oilywood. Granted, this is because the work is poetry, and it is all about the local, which in this case is not Ontario/Toronto centric, and it is a chapbook. But since small press publishing is a beautiful and misshapen cog operating within a much larger and far more problematic machine, I think it deserves attention. In its conflation and mingling personal and corporate interests, Oilywood is a poem/book that is very much about our time.
Natural Order by Brian Francis (Anchor Canada, 2012)
JM: Full disclosure: I have known Brian Francis for many years, I think about as long as I have known Hazel. I was even in a writing group with him when he was working on his first book, Fruit, and even suggested that he send it to ECW when the larger houses turned it down. It took me a while to finally read Natural Order (it was published in 2012), but I was surprised after the zany 13 year old voice of Fruit, as Natural Order is told in the voice of 86 year old woman looking back on her life with men, in particular with her homosexual son John. The novel explores some of the same issues as Fruit, that being sexuality and family relations and place, but from the point of view of an elderly mother who lives in a small southwestern Ontario town. I started reading it while I was on a weekend getaway in Kingston, and before I knew it I had finished the book and found myself reflecting on it for some time afterward. Joyce Sparks reminded me a lot of Hazel’s grandmother, who has also lived her life concerned with what the neighbours might think, and Brian also captured a particular essence of place that I know well, having grown up in Sowesto myself. Ultimately, this novel is about the “unspoken,” and about how the failure to communicate openly and honestly can lead to heartbreaking divide.
Celia’s Song by Lee Maracle (Cormorant Books, 2014)
JM: This is one that I haven’t read yet, but I have a copy of it sitting next to me as I type this up ready to go. I caught Lee Maracle at the Avant Canada Conference at Brock University in St Catharines this fall, where she was the plenary speaker. Her talk, delivered for over an hour with no notes, gave me pause several times. It was called “Two Days of Canada, 53,785 Days of Colonialism.” I have been thinking about “Canada” ever since. More than that I have been thinking about place and history in a larger sense. More recently I caught Maracle at a benefit for No More Silence hosted by Jason Collett and Damian Rogers. Maracle gave a powerful reading, as did all the First Nations artists who performed that night. So powerful, in fact, that they made all the white male Canadian performers, including Michael Ondaatje, Gord Downie and Kevin Drew, seem like fluffy, ironic, and (dare I say it) somewhat pointless examples of lit-royalty and hipsterism, who might as well have written their contributions to the evening on the limo ride there. Now, I know that reading a novel by a First Nations writer is not going to fix anything, but prior to hearing her speak in St. Catharines I had not heard of Lee Maracle. Now I want to know more and I am looking forward to opening Celia’s Song.
Hazel Millar, Publicist & Managing Editor
Hazel Millar: Like good parents who love all their children equally, we too love all our BookThug authors equally. So like a good parent, I chose not to include any of our wonderful authors and their spectacular books in my list so as not to show any favouritism. I did find it incredibly difficult to narrow my list down to just 5 books. I read many incredible books this year and I could have easily made a top 20, or 30 or even 40 list. Choosing only 5 was hard but here they are, in no particular order:
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews (Knopf Canada, 2014)
HM: Many people know that I adore Miram Toews and I haven’t read a Miriam Toews novel I didn’t love. But I fell head over heels crazy in love with this book and it moved me beyond words. When I first found out she had a new novel coming out in 2014, I tweeted at her to let her know I was unbelievably excited about it. When I first saw AMPS in a store (Ben McNally Books), I picked up a copy and cradled it in my arms. When I started reading it, I barely came up for breath. While it is a book that is likely to be on nearly every best of list out there I included it simply because I had to. It is an incredible book and Toews has outdone herself.
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night by Heather O’Neill (HarperCollins, 2014)
HM: I loved O’Neill’s debut novel Lullabies for Little Criminals. When I first spotted her follow up novel, while browsing in Librairie Drawn and Quarterly in Montreal, I stopped everything, including breathing. I had no idea it was even coming out. It was a huge surprise for me and I knew I had to have it. It just so happened to be our wedding anniversary and so Jay purchased a copy for me then and there as anniversary present. Upon leaving the store, I delved right in and shoved aside whatever else I was reading at the time and I read it all the way home to Toronto. Like AMPS, I pretty much didn’t come up for air until I was done.
Side Note: In June I got to see Toews and O’Neill read together at the Toronto Reference Library. I also got to meet both of them afterwards. My oldest son Reid still tells me he has never seen me fangirl out as much as I did that night. I got to see them read together again several times later in the fall and was so nervous I would embarrass myself and/or Reid all over that I didn’t dare approach either of them again.
Broom Broom by Brecken Hancock (Coach House Books, 2014)
HM: For many, many personal reasons I connected with this book on a deep and emotional level. I read it while walking around the streets of Kingston while we were visiting the city for the Kingston WritersFest. I don’t know exactly what we saw that afternoon in the city because I could not pull myself away from the book long enough to take in any of the sights. It is an unbelievably powerful debut poetry collection that everyone should read. I will leave it at that.
The Search for Heinrich Schlogel by Martha Baillie (Pedlar Press, 2014)
HM: Simply put, this is a novel that everyone needs to read. Even Oprah recommended it for goodness sake! Seriously though, this book taught me so much and made me think long and hard about so many things. Really important things. I have gone back and reread certain passages and phrases over and over and I suspect I will do that for a long time to come. It’s not a novel that you are simply done with when you get to the end. It leaves you with far too much to think about and contemplate.
Another side note: My favourite part of co-curating HIJ House Reading Series is that Jay and I get to be fans and invite our favourite authors to come and read in our house. When Martha agreed to come and read at HIJ I was thrilled. There is a particular passage in this novel that I hoped would be the one she would read from. When she came and actually read from that exact same passage, in my home (!) it moved me beyond words to hear her read it aloud. I cherish that reading as a highlight of my year.
This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki (Groundwood Books, 2014)
HM: From the first page, this delightful graphic novel charmed me. I read it all the way through in one sitting and then simply started over and read it all the way through again. I read it up north at a cottage we go to each summer so the setting happened to be perfect. But it was so much more than that. It made me nostalgic for childhood summers and filled me with memories from summers long ago that I hadn’t thought about in years. After my second reading I passed it around to the whole family and encouraged them all to read it. It became the cottage read. The only thing I looked forward to getting back to the city for was to get my hands on Tamaki’s earlier works.
Malcolm Sutton, Editor, Department of Narrative Studies
Endarkenment: the selected poems of Arkadii Dragomoshchenko edited by Eugene Ostashevsky, translated by Genya Turovskaya and Bela Shayevich (Wesleyan, 2014)
Malcolm Sutton: One of the greats of late 20th C Russian avant-garde poetry—thank you to the translators and editors of this collection for bringing more of Dragomoshchenko’s writing into English.
The Bourgeois by Franco Moretti (Verso, 2013)
MS: Moretti is a great brain of literary criticism, mixing Marxist sociology and Google-scan data.
Ancient History: A Paraphase by Joseph McElroy (Dzanc, 2014)
MS: First published in 1971 and reissued this year, one of the brilliant novels (my favourite, in fact) by an under-read American master.
The Last Lover by Can Xue (Yale, 2014)
MS: I have not read this novel yet, but Xue is one of the most challenging innovators out there; she ought to be more widely known.
The Worldkillers by Lucy Ives (SplitLevel Texts, 2014)
MS: A mind-boggling multiform novel published by a new press from Ann Arbor. I’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for other books by SplitLevel.
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan (Portfiolio Trade, 2012)
Nintendo has continually set the standard for video game innovation in America, and the saga of Mario, the portly plumber who became the most successful franchise in the history of gaming, has plot twists worthy of a video game.
Warriors Book One: Into the Wild by Erin Hunter (HarperCollins, 2014)
For generations, four Clans of wild cats have shared the forest according to the laws laid down by their ancestors. But the warrior code is threatened, and the ThunderClan cats are in grave danger. The sinister ShadowClan grows stronger every day. Noble warriors are dying—and some deaths are more mysterious than others . . . In the midst of this turmoil appears an ordinary housecat named Rusty . . . who may turn out to be the bravest warrior of them all.
The Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 1: The Parker Luck by Dan Slott, illustrated by Humberto Ramos (Marvel, 2014)
The greatest super hero of all time returns! The world may have changed since Spidey’s been gone, but so has Peter Parker. This is a man with a second chance at life, and he’s not wasting a moment of it. But his old foes are back, as well! Re-energized, out of control and madder than ever, Electro and the Black Cat demand revenge! And as if dealing with them isn’t enough, a new revelation rocks Spider-Man’s world to its core: the radioactive spider that granted Peter his powers bit someone else, too! Who is Silk, and where has she been all these years? Find out as Peter Parker retakes his life, putting the “friendly” back in the neighborhood, the “hero” back in “super hero” — and the “amazing” back in “Spider-Man!” Collecting AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (2014) #1-6.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul by Jeff Kinney (Harry N. Abrams, 2014)
A family road trip is supposed to be a lot of fun … unless, of course, you’re the Heffleys. The journey starts off full of promise, then quickly takes several wrong turns. Gas station bathrooms, crazed seagulls, a fender bender, and a runaway pig—not exactly Greg Heffley’s idea of a good time. But even the worst road trip can turn into an adventure—and this is one the Heffleys won’t soon forget.
Origami Yoda Book Six: Emperor Pickletine Rides the Bus by Tom Angleberger (Harry N. Abrams, 2014)
Angleberger closes his six-plus-volume (there is a companion origami manual with stories) series of doodle-filled Star Wars paeans with an enjoyable, funny and realistic denouement that nicely wraps up most of the series storylines. Age-appropriate boy-girl relationships add to the authenticity of the characters, who will soon be eighth graders. One last time: “stooky!” (Er, “fantastic!”)
— Kirkus Reviews
Editor’ s Note: Despite the preponderance of Kerouac on this list, it was Ginsberg that Reid decided to dress up as for Halloween this year.
Big Sur by Jack Kerouac
“Oh the sad music of it all, I’ve done it all, seen it all, done everything with everybody…The whole world is coming on like a high school sophomore eager to learn what he calls new things, mind you, the same old sing-song, sad song truth of death.” Big Sur is about this realization, that death waits for everyone, even those who seem the most full of life. “Something good will come out of all things yet,” he states at the end of the biographical novel, but anyone who knows the author’s story after this book knows that disintegration and death indeed triumph. We don’t want this. We want the romance of youth and the endless road ahead. Nevertheless, if Kerouac can face the loss of his dream, then so can we.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac
Remarkably, On the Road was actually written in 1951 when, so the story goes, Kerouac typed the words over three uninterrupted weeks on to a 120ft scroll of teletype paper, fuelled by Benzedrine and strong coffee. The novel recounts, in a breathless and impressionistic style, his travels to and fro across America, often in the company of his friend and prime influence, Neal Cassady, renamed Dean Moriarty in the book [….] On the Road continues to be read. What was once a zeitgeist book, though, and one that defined a transformative moment in postwar culture, has become a historical artefact. It may even be the case that today’s teenagers read On the Road in much the same way that my generation read Laurie Lee’s picaresque rites-of-passage novel As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning—as a glimpse into an already distant past when things seemed simpler.
— Sean O’Hagan, The Guardian
Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
“The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” is an astonishing book. It is to the hippie movement what Norman Mailer’s “The Armies of the Night” was to the Vietnam protest movement. [….] Wolfe is precisely the right author to chronicle the transformation of Ken Kesey from respected author of “And One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” to an LSD enthusiast, to the messianic leader of a mystical band of Merry Pranksters, to a fugitive from the F.B.I., California police and Mexican Federales. “The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test” is a celebration of psychedelia, of all its sounds and costumes, colors and fantasies.
— C. D. B. Bryan, The New York Times (1968)
Howl by Allen Ginsberg
Ginsberg first came to public attention in 1956 with the publication of Howl and Other Poems. “Howl,” a long-lined poem in the tradition of Walt Whitman, is an outcry of rage and despair against a destructive, abusive society. Kevin O’Sullivan, writing in Newsmakers, deemed “Howl” “an angry, sexually explicit poem” and added that it is “considered by many to be a revolutionary event in American poetry.”The poem’s raw, honest language and its “Hebraic-Melvillian bardic breath,” as Ginsberg called it, stunned many traditional critics. James Dickey, for instance, referred to “Howl” as “a whipped-up state of excitement” and concluded that “it takes more than this to make poetry.” Appraising the impact of “Howl,” Paul Zweig noted that it “almost singlehandedly dislocated the traditionalist poetry of the 1950s.” [….] In addition to stunning critics, Howl stunned the San Francisco Police Department. Because of the graphic sexual language of the poem, they declared the book obscene and arrested the publisher, poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The ensuing trial attracted national attention, as prominent literary figures such as Mark Schorer, Kenneth Rexroth, and Walter Van Tilberg Clark spoke in defense of Howl. Schorer testified that “Ginsberg uses the rhythms of ordinary speech and also the diction of ordinary speech. I would say the poem uses necessarily the language of vulgarity.” Clark called Howl “the work of a thoroughly honest poet, who is also a highly competent technician.” The testimony eventually persuaded Judge Clayton W. Horn to rule that Howl was not obscene. The qualities cited in its defense helped make Howl the manifesto of the Beat literary movement.
—The Poetry Foundation
Selected Poems by bill bissett
This volume represents the most definitive and comprehensive selection of bissett’s writing from the 1960s and 1970s, in voices “erotik, politikul, humorous, lyrikul, sound-vizual, narrative, meditative, konkreet, collage, nd song-chants.”
Rick Meier, Intern
Rick Meier: Since I’m the intern typing all this up, I’ve cheated and included a BookThug book, because I’ve been raving about it for months. I’ve also listed six books instead of five.
White Girls, by Hilton Als (McSweeny’s, 2014)
RM: Hilton Als is a hero of mine. He has my dream job (drama critic for an unassailably consequential East Coast periodical); but it’s his work for the New York Review of Books that really knocked me head over heels for his voice/brain. He also dropped my favourite quote of the year in a commencement speech at Columbia University School of the Arts: “There’s not an artist on God’s green earth who feels, emotionally speaking, that he or she has been invited to the prom.”
Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014)
RM: This spring I read Donald Antrim’s The Hundred Brothers and immediately wanted to read more of his stuff. I was thrilled to see that he had a new book of stories out. He is excellent.
Bunny and Shark by Alisha Piercy (BookThug, 2014)
RM: My explanation of Bunny and Shark is just a Santa-length list of adjectives: sharp, cinematic; harrowingly intelligent and unexpected; bold, and yet entirely unpretentious. The exotic setting comes completely to life; the cast is elaborate and memorable; Bunny is unforgettable.
The Knowledge: How To Rebuild Our World from Scratch by Lewis Dartnell (Penguin, 2014)
RM: Even though I read many more beautifully written books in 2014, astrobiologist Lewis Dartnell’s book, The Knowledge, has been providing me with solid cocktail party conversation for months—so for that I am grateful, and for that his book goes on the list. The premise of the book is simple: We live in a society where knowledge (especially technical and scientific knowledge) is dispersed so precariously among specialists via professional institutions that if society were to crumble, our collective technological memory/capacity would almost instantly be wiped away. The Knowledge is a sort of deconstruction of the history of science and technical discovery, which Dartnell then rearranges in order of what knowledge we would need in the event of a global collapse: from how to sanitize and store water to bridge building and advanced chemistry. The post-apocalyptic is having it’s moment, which is why this book exists. But there are no zombies or roaming marauders in this book. Dartnell drains the swamp of post-apocalyptic cliches and thinks seriously and concretely about the fragility of our arrogantly advanced civilization. A good book to have around.
Infinite Jest (Audiobook) by David Foster Wallace, narrated by Sean Pratt (Hachette, 2012)
RM: I first tried to read Infinite Jest when I was seventeen years old. Like most millennials I know, I read about 200 pages before passively giving up. Loath to be so typical, I spent the better part of a decade trying to finish this encyclopedic tome, re-reading the novel from the beginning every time. I finished it when I was about twenty-six, I think. But the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. If you had asked me even a year ago if I thought Infinite Jest was a novel worth reading, I would have probably said no. This year, however, I stumbled upon an audio version. Entirely bewildered as to how an audio version of Infinite Jest would work (incorporating hundreds of pages of intentionally disruptive endnotes, replete with diagrams, mathematical equations, special formatting etc.), I decided to check it out. I’m so glad I did, because listening to someone else read Infinite Jest (after a decade of wearing it around my neck) took me back to the excitement and joy of reading DFW over a decade ago. So, NEWSFLASH, you guys! Infinite Jest is an amazing bit of writing. Side note: the actor they get to read the book sounds eerily like David Foster Wallace himself. Worth looking into for the creep factor alone.
Nothing By Design by Mary Jo Salter (Knopf, 2013)
RM: As with Donald Antrim (see above), I was thrilled to discover in Salter a fine craftsman. Something about the stories she tells (these poems tell stories) have me on board immediately—even though it is my natural disposition to want to play hard to get, to ask “who cares?”. I love that she doesn’t waste lines (or whole poems) on throwaway humour; nor does she think she can shock me with the intense everyday darkness of modern existence. Her confessionalism is relevant because it is refined. Her strength comes from control as well as honesty. This book has no hook; many of the poems are short set pieces (I dare not say “sketches”) from a life as it moves through middle age, pondering the past as it crashes into the present. So much of the contemporary poetry I enjoy is rawer (the word we like to use is “visceral”) and more conceptual; more heavily reliant on high-meets-low humour and shock; more drenched in deliberate confusion, measured detachment, and guilt-ridden self-obsession. This book is totally different.
Samantha Preddie, Intern
Editor’s note: Even in a blog dedicated to glancing back over over a year’s reading, it is still important to look forward, clear-eyed and optimistic. These are the books Sam looks forward to reading in 2015.
The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan
Even though she was just twenty-two when she died, Marina Keegan left behind a rich, expansive trove of prose that, like her title essay, captures the hope, uncertainty, and possibility of her generation.The Opposite of Loneliness is an assemblage of Marina’s essays and stories that, like The Last Lecture, articulates the universal struggle that all of us face as we figure out what we aspire to be and how we can harness our talents to make an impact on the world.
How to Breathe Underwater by Chris Turner (Biblioasis, 2014)
“Chris Turner is among the best magazine writers on the planet. His writing is so beautiful, wry and well-reported that it’s spellbinding. And spellbreaking: He wakes you up, makes you sit upright and look afresh at our culture, our climate, and where we need to go. This is literary nonfiction at its finest.”
— Clive Thompson, Wired columnist and author of Smarter Than You Think
Thug Kitchen by Matt Holloway & Michelle Davis (Rodale Books, 2014)
Thug Kitchen started their wildly popular website to inspire people to eat some Goddamn vegetables and adopt a healthier lifestyle. Beloved by Gwyneth Paltrow (“This might be my favorite thing ever”) and named Saveur’s Best New Food blog of 2013—with half a million Facebook fans and counting—Thug Kitchen wants to show everyone how to take charge of their plates and cook up some real f*cking food.
— Rodale Books
The Science of Language: Interviews by James McGilvray by Noam Chomsky (Cambridge University Press, 2012)
“Noam Chomsky has long been recognized as a founding genius of modern linguistics. These compelling and carefully organized interviews illustrate why . . . The book is truly exceptional in affording an accessible and readable introduction to Chomsky’s broad-based and cutting-edge theorizing. A must-read!”
— Robert J. Stainton, The University of Western Ontario
1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (Vintage International, 2013)
“Murakami is like a magician who explains what he’s doing as he performs the trick and still makes you believe he has supernatural powers . . . But while anyone can tell a story that resembles a dream, it’s the rare artist, like this one, who can make us feel that we are dreaming it ourselves.”
—The New York Times Book Review
To you and yours from the gang at BookThug, here’s to happy reading in 2015!