With 2015 soon coming to a close, and “best of” book lists appearing everywhere, it’s no surprise that we’re looking back on our favourite reads of the year. As per BookThug tradition, we asked a group of BookThug authors to share the Top 5 books they read this year. Samuel Andreyev, Pearl Pirie, Kate Hargreaves, Jean Marc Ah-Sen and Josh Massey kindly provided us with their picks for 2015.
Samuel Andreyev, author of The Relativistic Empire
Isidore Ducasse by Jean-Jacques Lefrère (Fayard, 1998)
Samuel Andreyev: This is a comprehensive biography of Isidore Ducasse, better known as le Comte de Lautréamont. Relatively comprehensive, that is, given that what is known about Ducasse’s life could be summed up in a few paragraphs. The author is forced to write around Ducasse rather than about him—describing, in fascinating detail, Ducasse’s milieu, the people he know, and the circumstances in which he lived.
The Writings of Robert Motherwell (University of California Press, 2007)
SA: Robert Motherwell is probably my least-favourite of the major Abstract Expressionist painters, partly because of his extreme productivity which often makes it difficult to separate out the truly essential work from the everyday. Yet he writes like an angel, and this volume contains vivid accounts of the most burning questions in art during the period in which he lived and worked.
Claude Vivier: A Composer’s Life by Bob Gilmore (University of Rochester Press, 2014)
SA: Biographies of living (or recently deceased) composers are extremely rare, and good ones could be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is assuredly one of them. Québecois composer Claude Vivier had a tragic life—an orphan, he died in sordid circumstances in Paris, in 1983—but wrote some incredibly beautiful music which has transcended the limited Canadian scene and become somewhat of an international phenomenon.
Les amours jaunes by Tristan Corbière (La Pléiade, 1973)
SA: Like Isidore Ducasse, Breton poet Tristan Corbière lived through the Paris Commune and published only one major work in his lifetime, a sarcastic, bitter collection of verse which does the near-impossible: combining the most journalistic informality and looseness of tone with the most exquisite technical perfection. One gets a sense of the extreme harshness of life in 1860s France, filtered through an amazing erudition. I’ve been reading it compulsively.
Tristan Tzara by Elmer Peterson (Rutgers University Press, 1971)
SA: This is actually a very mediocre literary study of Tristan Tzara by a virtually unknown scholar. It was given to me over 15 years ago and has sat on my shelf ever since, as I was certain that I would eventually read it. When I finally did, over the summer, I was instantly fascinated (again) by Tzara, whose personality rages across the decades, untamed even by this very tame volume.
Pearl Pirie, author of the pet radish, shrunken
Spiders: Learning to Love Them by Lynne Kelly (Allen & Unwin, 2009)
Pearl Pirie: So, things were getting absurd. She woke screaming with nightmares of spiders. Well, that had to stop so she researched arachnophobes and invertebrate specialists worldwide. She overshot her aim of exposure therapy and became an field observer herself like Anne Rasa or Jane Goodall of the smalls. You are never more than a meter away from a spider but us huge clunking predators make them hide. Like Virginia Morell in Animal Wise mentioned, we observe better when an individual has a name. So she named and observed how some litter-mates are bold, others retreating, how where an orb-weaver builds changes shape and design and placement based on where it gets disturbed. Did you know there are 6 kinds of spider silk made?
Clean Sails by Gustave Morin (New Star Books, 2015)
PP: Excuses. Don’t need no professional quality acrylics to render a clear thought. Given sand, duct tape, or typewriter and the mind which is devoted to expressing, pushes any means to the necessary degree. It is not the tool but the mind behind it. Playful, meticulous, and sober and with more commentary on politics than most verbal poetry dares or cares to do with minimalist “violence as ornament”. Eye-dazzle, yes, but not decorative and pleasant and easy as some poetry, nor arbitrarily shutting the reader out either.
Their Biography: an organism of relationships by Kevin McPherson Eckhoff (BookThug, 2015)
PP: We are bound to our forms and lined pages and parallel typed ideas with their associated propriety dibs until we forget our cage is there. As if from the lineage of Kenneth Patchen’s Hallelujah Anyway, their biography blows the doors off what is Done. It isn’t A Small Place by Jamaica Kincaid but it is another thing enacting a message thru its form. Some hand-drawn, some puzzle, some anecdote, self is other including other species, other is one with all. It is not about Connection exactly but connection, and valuing play.
What a Plant Knows: A Field Guide to the Senses by Daniel Chamovitz (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012)
PP: While news is busy painting all not-human as monolithic green, people are actually learning things that have been being explored for centuries. How do plants perceive space, light, colour, movement? When do which cells communicate which way is up? How do messages go thru cell walls? While a lot of poetry is what next, this is the rest of the 5Ws.
Hungry Ghosts by Peggy Blair (Simon and Schuster, 2015)
PP: Hooked forward and yet elegantly poetically put together as Alden Nolan, the book runs in two parallel plots of detectives investigating murdered women in Cuba and in Northern Ontario, it has a native man returning to his birth community as a police detective, and has a feeling of being on the rough side of Cuba with its grey economy and people living as they must around rules when the rules don’t work. Through fiction more can be understood than in a report and yet the book is suspenseful and doesn’t feel didactic. Closing the book there’s a disorientation like getting off a plane, of expecting to see in a few steps again the homes we were just in.
Kate Hargreaves, author of Leak
by Julia Serano (Seal Press, 2007)
Jean Marc Ah-Sen, author of Grand Menteur
Herr F/Popppappp by Momus (Fiktion, 2014/2015)
Jean Marc: Momus released these two books through Fiktion, a German digital publishing initiative in cooperation with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt aiming to expand the debate about copyright law by publishing free books. It’s a bold and exciting mandate, more than equipped to handle the meta-narrative of Heinrich Faust, an amputee cross-dresser who sells his soul to Mephistopheles in exchange for the success of his novel The Book of Moss (literally about moss growing in eight chapters), and the stories of Popppappp and the Cowardly Minotaur, two graphic designers who are kidnapped by a Syrian terror cell (inspired by the lyrics of Sark E. Myth of the Foul no less) and after a fashion, “perverted by language.” Momus’ books exist in liminal spaces of absurdity and hyper-rationalism, and are framed through metabolic taxonomies of the arts world in ways that make a reader not only question the genesis of inspiration, but the larger rub of whether such a concept is even necessary.
Night Train by Martin Amis (Harmony Books, 1997)
JM: The master stylist’s take on the blockbuster police procedural stretches through its neo-noir trappings, and it doesn’t take the nods to Philip K. Dick to prime the fact that Mike Hoolihan is a detective who will on more than one occasion have to wade through the metaphysical dump of the universe. Raw-boned and sclerotic, Amis’ approximation of cop culture reads like hot coals on the brain, like it’s a police qua police narrative of everything that has come before. Fast-paced, sure-sighted, Night Train is tight-wire populism hanging over an abyss of abstraction.
The Floating Opera by John Barth (Bantam Books, 2015)
JM: I don’t really care for the mechanical nature of the plot – cynical and suicidal lawyer has an open relationship with his best friend’s wife while representing said friend in a legal dispute over his dead father’s estate – but I do admire the pairing of Douglas Sirk melodrama with the mental sparring of the philosophical novel. Barth’s prose is the real selling point for me though. It’s urbane, stylish, efficient, unforgettable. There are many lessons to be found here for writers, and there can really be no stronger recommendation of its merits.
The Embassy of Cambodia by Zadie Smith (Hamish Hamilton, 2013)
JM: Class looms large in this miraculous tale of urban alienation. Stunningly executed, Smith has somehow managed to make a comprehensive statement on economic hardship in less than a hundred pages that other writers would only too gladly give their eye teeth for in a lifetime’s body of work. The metaphor of the badminton game being played behind the embassy works on many levels, but for me none are so evocative as the fact that no matter what invisible barriers are erected to mask it, the upper crust cannot help but make a mockery of those below it by envisioning life along the rules of a game.
Malcolm Sutton at BookThug turned me on to this book, a kind of louche nightmare that luxuriates in misfortune. Davies recounts his time spent thumping all over the Americas and beating the railways, cheating and witnessing death’s touch on a daily turn – he even gives up a leg for this errantry. Davies dishes out pathos like it’s going out of style, and this captivating and flawed memoir is an audacious tale of life on the downright for anyone who longs to be back in the mud. Every scam, swindle, grift, and hustle from the turn of the century is recounted in wheelwright detail. Extra points awarded to Davies for taking slumming to a whole new level of depravity.
Josh Massey, author of The Plotline Bomber of Innisfree
The Bastard of Fort Stikine: The Hudson’s Bay Company and the Murder of John Mcloughlin, Jr by Debra Komar (Goose Lane Editions, 2015)
Josh Massey: This book details a tale of mutiny and murder in a Hudson’s Bay Company outpost using forensic anthropology, written by Debra Komar. She’s great at detailing with incisive humour the savagery of the early settler mentality by analyzing correspondence and other historical records.
Landscapes and Portraits: Appreciations of Japanese Culture by Donald Keene (Kodansha International, 1978)
JM: This is a 1971 long-range look at Japanese creations written in an academically clean and erudite style.
The Reprisal: A Novel by Laudomia Bonanni (University of Chicago Press, 2013)
JM: Written through the mid to late 1900s by Italian writer Laudomia Bonanni, this title was chosen for its drama as well—a pregnant woman awaiting execution by Italian fascists wields her fierce wit against her captors.
A Poetics by Charles Bernstein (Harvard University Press, 1992)
I found therein many eloquent and succinct presentations of ideas, a theory of disjuncture and plurality and open-mindedness to form and experimentation that moved that thing forward in its time and still seems to measure the pulse of our current creative challenges.
Thank you to Samuel Andreyev, Pearl Pirie, Kate Hargreaves, Jean Marc Ah-Sen and Josh Massey for their great picks! Stay tuned for our Editor’s Edition of Best Reads 2015, coming next week!