In this edition of BookThug’s Best Reads, we turn things over to our editors and staff to reflect on their year in reading. Here are our favourite books we read in 2015, with contributions from Jay MillAR and Hazel Millar, Malcolm Sutton, Phil Hall, Ruth Zuchter, Emma Hunter, Shankari Mano, and even our resident Junior BookThugs, Reid and Cole Millar.
Jay MillAr, Publisher & HeadThug
Jay MillAr: I always feel guilty because I don’t have a lot of time to read for pleasure, and when I get to the end of a year and reflect on my year of reading I’m often disheartened by the failed starts and broken bits of engagement with books. However, here are a few books I read this year that left a curious impression on me.
A Man in Love by Karl Knausgaard (Vintage, 2013)
JM: Yes, I got to wondering about the hype of these books and so grabbed A Man in Love to take with me to a cottage retreat last summer. I can’t deny that I didn’t fall into the rhythm of the thing – a story about a man who is a writer with a young family. There is a scene that takes place at a child’s party that is particularly memorable, but so is the tension between loving one’s family and how difficult it can be to be creative at the same time. I couldn’t help relating to that, and I suspect that many writers/artists would likewise relate, but at the same time I was infuriated. Why does family always have to play second fiddle? The endless minutia was also fascinating – a minutia that feels like non-fiction with a narrative arc – and detailed so well I not only got lost in it but marveled at the author’s ability to recall the smallest thing so well. And so when I got to one of the final scenes of the book in which Knausgaard is having drinks with his editor and is complaining that he can never remember anything – names, faces, details, dates – I laughed out loud, struck by the hilariousness of what he had accomplished.
10:04 by Ben Lerner (Faber & Faber, 2014)
JM: I picked this up because I liked Leaving the Atocha Station so much. And I wasn’t disappointed. The opening passage of 10:04 is so amazing that it actually leaves a visceral impression on me. I feel ‘otherly’ every time I read it. The intersection of everything going on in this book is incredible and somehow delicately perfect. All I can say about this one is read it.
How To Be Both by Ali Smith (Penguin, 2014)
JM: I picked this one up because I liked the throwback colours in the image on the cover. Yes, this book was shortlisted for a Booker, but I’d never heard of Smith before. I won’t deny that the book isn’t good, a quirky narrative with equally quirky characters, but what left the impression on me the most was what I found out after finishing part one and turned the page to discover not part two but another part one. After a little research online, it seems that the book was published with two part ones on purpose because Smith couldn’t decide which story to begin with. So they are both part one, and both stories are related, but also completely separate, with different narrators (one being a young woman who is grieving the death of her mother, the other being the ghost of a 15th Century fresco painter that the girl in the other part one’s mother was particularly fond of). But further to that the publisher bound the book both ways, with half the print run starting with part one and half starting with the other part one, and when they shipped orders to bookstores they shuffled the variant copies together into the boxes so that stores received both. Which makes How To Be Both kind of amazing, both as a narrative and as a book.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf, 2015)
JM: OK, I didn’t read this one, exactly. I listened to a recording of it while driving to Essex County and back. So I don’t know anything about the book per say – I’ve never held it or opened it or considered the formality of the text or anything like that. But Nelson herself was reading it so The Argonauts took on what I feel is a slightly more personalized expression: a cloud of vocalized something that is passionate and revealing. What she speaks of is important, of our age, and disrupts that notion that we are nodes of sameness or that there should be categories for us to live in. I’m still processing a lot of what happens in the book, so want to encourage everyone to read it so we can all talk about it.
Harmless by James Grainger (McClelland & Stewart, 2015)
JM: Like Ali Smith’s book I picked this one up because of the cover. It’s a pretty easy read – the main character, Joseph, is visiting friends who live out in the country for a reunion of sorts with other old friends, and it’s awkward (his host is a former lover and her husband) and everyone gets inebriated (of course) and then things go awry when they discover his daughter and the daughter of his hosts have gone missing. And so off they go into the woods in the middle of the night armed with a gun and a knife in search of them. What could go wrong? And so it goes. What struck me about the book was the unbelievably of it all. Nowhere within driving distance of the city is that remote, and the woods on the property seem to go on forever, and the things they run into within them are, well, incredible. There isn’t much about it that is terribly realistic, which isn’t a problem per say – since when does a novel have to be realistic? But where reality is questionable there is certainly something cinematic about Harmless, and so I wasn’t surprised to discover that Atom Egoyan had bought the film rights. Not bad for a first novel.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Henry Holt and Co., 2014)
JM: I love thinking about evolution and geological time. I can’t help it. This book sheds new light on the rather primitive idea of extinction that we all seem to know about. By discussing not only the disappearance of a number of geologically contemporary species, Kolbert ruminates upon each of the five major extinctions that we know of so as to allow us to consider the next major extinction that is happening all around us because we are the reason for its occurrence. Kolbert has written a fascinating series of essays on how human beings have altered life on this planet over the course of their existence on it, and in such a way that the planet may not have time for us much longer. To get a sense of things at an even greater level involving our present economy, I recommend reading The Sixth Extinction along with Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything.
Hazel Millar, Publicist & Managing Editor
Hazel Millar: I read more books in 2015 than ever before and I found it tricky to narrow my list down to just five titles because there are so many books I wish I could include here. Nearly everyone who knows me is aware of my unabashed love for Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis. I shouted about it from roof tops all year long. With all the highly deserving praise and accolades this book has already received, I’m not sure I can bring any more attention to this book, other than to emphatically state that if you haven’t read it yet then please do! I made the tough decision to leave it off my list in order to shine some love on other deserving titles. I also wrestled with including Judy Blume’s highly anticipated In the Unlikely Event on my list, but mostly because I LOVE JUDY BLUME and because an absolute highlight of my year was getting to see her at the Appel Salon Series at the Toronto Reference Library earlier this year. It was a night for the books, and then some. I was also blown away by Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. I think that Nelson is one of the most astute critical thinkers of our time and, while I didn’t include it in my list below, it’s only because, to me, The Argonauts is in a class all by itself.
The Devil You Know by Elisabeth de Mariaffi (Harper Collins Canada, 2015)
HM: I loved Elisabeth’s debut story collection How To Get Along With Women (Invisible Publishing), and couldn’t wait to read her first novel, The Devil You Know. It was the first book I read in 2015 and it stuck with me all year. It’s such an important novel and I think everyone should read it. When I finished reading it I wrote to Elisabeth to thank her for writing it. I also extended an open invitation to her (and her husband, the poet George Murray) to come from St. John’s, NFLD, to read at our house reading series, HIJ, anytime. My wish came true in November when they were both here in Toronto to do some final readings on their book tours. It was amazing to have Elisabeth read from this incredible book in our living room, of all places. It was another absolute highlight of my year.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein (Penguin Random House, Canada, 2015)
HM: I have the biggest crush on Carrie Brownstein. I also kind of wish I was Carrie Brownstein. I simply adore her and Sleater-Kinney rocks my world and I think Portlandia is the best sketch comedy show to come along since Kids in the Hall. Brownstein’s memoir reads like a love letter to Sleater-Kinney and revisits the early days of the Riot grrrl movement in Olympia, Washington. I have a particularly soft spot for memoirs by women in rock and comedy but one thing that really stood out for me about Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is that Carrie Brownstein is a really good writer. I loved it from start to finish.
I also got to see Carrie Brownstein at the Appel Salon Series this month and it was another major highlight of my year. She was funny, quick witted and whip smart. My one hope is that finally, with this book and Sleater-Kinney’s return this year, interviewers everywhere will stop asking her and the other band members if it is was a conscious decision on their part to form an all-girl band. Enough with this question, already.
Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent by Liz Howard (McClelland & Stewart, 2015)
HM: Infinite Citizen of the Shaking Tent was my absolute favourite book of poetry this year. Liz Howard is a poet that I have loved and followed on the lit scene for years. I was so excited to find out her debut book was finally coming out in 2015 and could not wait to read it. Jay and I celebrate our wedding anniversary on May 4, and when it came around this year, we went to High Park and lay out on a blanket underneath a big pine tree, and started to read aloud to each other from Liz’s book. After finishing the first poem, which is incredible, I shut the book and said “holy f#$k.” Every poem in the book is superb and this collection proves what Jay and I have known for years now, which is that Liz Howard is a force to be reckoned with in Canadian poetry.
Martin John by Anakana Schofield (Biblioasis, 2015)
HM: I’m not a very religious person but I bow down to the higher powers and thank God for Anakana Schofield. She is an incredible writer. She is also hilarious. This novel nearly broke me in every possible way but only because it is so bloody brilliant. I truly believe that CanLit is so much better with AK in it and I cannot recommend Martin John enough!
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Random House, Canada, 2015)
HM: I believe that Toni Morrison’s much hyped blurb about this book truly does say it all: “This is required reading.” Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstore, or library, and get your hands on a copy of this book. Go! Why are you even still reading this… go now. You will be changed after reading this. It is one of the most important books to appear in a long time and I simply cannot stop thinking about it.
Malcolm Sutton, Editor, Department of Narrative Studies
Outline by Rachel Cusk (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2015)
Malcolm Sutton: A kind of crystal clear realism that feels very slightly ahead of the moment – of our present writing moment. Cusk carves out a literary space that is stripped free from adornment; precise, mysterious, observational. Deservingly on a number of best-of lists for the year.
The Irresponsible Magician: Essays and Fictions by Rebekah Rutkoff (semiotext(e), 2015)
MS: Essays and short fiction brought together in this small volume by the brilliant American writer. Invented dialogues about artistic processes, encounters with famous cultural figures, suggestive and uncanny colour photos, disciplined interrogations of art films. There is such a fascinating and evasive searching going on in these made-up interviews and non-fictional essays.
The Illogic of Kassel by Enrique Vila-Matas (New Directions, 2014)
MS: An earnest yet loose response to the author’s invitation to a writing residency at Documenta 13, with readings of the installations and the strange social system that he enters at the contemporary art fair. My favourite of Vila-Matas’s, though I have not read all of his translated into English. Here he gets away from meditating on the modernist literary avant-garde (which I’ve become so tired of) that mark a number of his other books, and maybe there’s more of a vulnerability in this work because he does not hide behind those Walsers and Kafkas and Melvilles.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf, 2015)
MS: All at once everyone I knew was reading this and saying that it was really good and then it seemed like there were no copies available in Toronto. It is really good. Its mix of memoir and theory felt so right this year.
The World in a Second by Isabel Minhós Martins and Bernardo P. Carvalho (Enchanted Lion Books, 2015)
MS: My son is approaching two years – I spend time browsing the children’s section of bookstores. I discovered this in the wonderful back room of Type. I think about its images all the time, cinematic painting/drawings of places from around the world, in such an unusual colour palette with saturated browns and blue-greens. Dirty urban skies and densely populated spaces and mid-rise housing. My son loves the images of soccer and bustling avenues.
Phil Hall, Poetry Editor and Author
Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives by Susan Howe (New Directions, 2014)
Phil Hall: This doesn’t look like a New Directions book, but it is: compact, blue, hard-cover, and with tan panels of Howe’s biblio-artifacts, and with her line-overlay collage-bits. In plastic wrappers.
The best poet in the States is quietly digging away in the Emily Dickinson Collection at Amhurst College, and in the William Carlos Williams Collection at SUNY, Buffalo, etc.
One day by chance I opened a folder…the rapacious “fetching” involved in collection…Pricked pattern for lace…
Peacock Blue: The Collected Poems of Phyllis Webb (Talonbooks, 2014)
PH: From my review for The Malahat Review: Surely, Peacock Blue is the literary event of the year. Reading this life-in-words, it is obvious that Al Purdy is not now our reigning voice—Phyllis Webb is. She has engendered her full scope—by silences—by retreats—unto a woman’s lyric authority.
I, Bartleby by Meredith Quartermain (Talonbooks, 2015)
PH: These are stories, but not really “short stories,” more like prose poem meditations on language and region, people, memory and apprenticeship. Scribe notes.
The last piece about Pauline Johnson in retirement in Vancouver is especially terrific. It has accompanying photos, a la W.G. Sebald; and a machine gun has an absurd prominent role.
The Hatch by Colin Browne (Talonbooks, 2015)
PH: From my review for The Bull Calf Review: This poet can apparently do anything: long-lined narrative poems of spoof and homage (in the earlier books), very tiny poems, tender garden lyrics, defiant chants… The diversity and dexterity are dazzling, the images stick, the phrasing causes slaps or shivers.
Strangers & Others, Newfoundland Essays. 1. by Stan Dragland (Pedlar Press, 2015)
PH: Canada’s best essayist. Three volumes of Dragland’s defenses, celebrations and explorations of Newfoundland literature & culture are scheduled. In this first volume, there are essays on Wayne Johnson’s Colony of Unrequited Dreams, and Lisa Moore’s February, among others.
A meandering, quirky, personable style does not obscure the astuteness.
Ruth Zuchter, Copy Editor
Emma Hunter, Marketing Intern
The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Vintage, 1992)
Emma Hunter: Six students in an elite and selective Classics History program find their close knit group falling apart when a murder happens within the group. Sort of a psychological take on the murder mystery, with the reader knowing from the start who killed whom but not why, this book is completely absorbing and thought-provoking.
No Work Finished Here: Rewriting Andy Warhol by Liz Worth (BookThug, 2015)
EH: Much more than just a creative idea, this book takes each page of Andy Warhol’s a, a novel, which consists of transcribed conversations from Warhol’s Factory, and turns each page into poems that capture the energy and madness of New York in the 1960’s.
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (Scribner, 2014)
EH: The lives of a blind French girl and a young German radio expert become intertwined in occupied France during World War II. Haunting and beautifully written, the story is intricately plotted and the characters feel fully fleshed.
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman, Illustrated by Chris Riddell (Bloomsbury, 2014)
EH: I was slightly swayed by the beautiful artwork with this one, but this graphic novel is also original and captivating. A dark take on the stories of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, this is fantasy as only Neil Gaiman can write it (and Chris Riddell can draw it).
Boo by Neil Smith (Vintage, 2015)
EH: Nicknamed Boo for his pale skin, Oliver Dalrymple finds himself dead in the eighth grade from a heart defect. As he begins documenting what the after life is like, he meets another boy from his school who tells him that they both actually died in a school shooting. Wholly original and engrossing, this book surprised me in a lot of ways and I didn’t see the ending coming at all.
Shankari Mano, Editorial Intern
Fall On Your Knees by Ann-Marie MacDonald (Knopf Canada, 1996)
Shankari Mano: A story about a highly dysfunctional family with a mentally disturbed father, and how the daughters must stick together to survive. It takes place in the late 1800s and early 1900s, in Nova Scotia, WW1 battlefields, and New York City. Somehow both disturbing and beautiful. Not a light read.
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell (Penguin, 1933)
SM: One of his lesser-known works, a memoir, but it has the same Orwellian flair. Running out of money while staying in Paris, Orwell decides to live like the poorest classes and takes jobs in restaurant kitchens. Returning to London, he lives as a tramp on the road and stays in hostels. The book is an unprejudiced reflection on poverty, class, and society. On a funny note, Orwell apparently got sick of it after awhile and wrote home for money.
M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang (Dramatist Play Service, 1988)
SM: An award-winning play about the relationship between a French diplomat and a Chinese opera singer. The diplomat doesn’t know that the opera singer is actually a man masquerading as a woman. Confronting gender stereotypes and Orientalism, this play is both entertaining and profound.
The Sandman: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman (Vertigo, 1993)
SM: A graphic novel dominated by female characters. A recently divorced Barbie is living in New York when her imaginary friends from her fantasy world reach out to her because they’re being threatened by an evil creature called the Cuckoo. After Barbie enters her fantasy realm, her friends in the real world, a pre-operative transgender women, a lesbian couple, and a witch, come to her rescue. A rich, fantastical story involving love, death, and destruction.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle (Square Fish, 1963)
SM: A fantasy children’s novel in which science and religion manage to coexist. A young girl must travel through space and time to rescue her father who has mysteriously disappeared. A chilling, mind-bending, truly unique tale about good and evil, conformity, and truth.
Reid Millar, JuniorThug
The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac (Penguin, 1958)
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
Following in the tradition of Reid’s picks from last year, Kerouac tops the list of our resident BeatThug. Dharma Bums was written after Kerouac’s experiences in On The Road, and it follows a group of friends as they search for nirvana. Inspired by Kerouac’s introduction to Buddhism, The Dharma Bums explores the duality between Kerouac’s life in the 1950s, from the hiking in nature to drunken jazz parties in San Francisco.
Less Than Zero by Brett Easton Ellis (Simon & Schuster, 1985)
Written when he was only twenty one, Brett Easton Ellis’s debut novel follows an upper class college student who returns to his home of Los Angeles during winter break. The novel chronicles his growing disillusionment with the youth party scene that surrounds him, full of drugs, sex and apathy.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Little, Brown and Company, 1951)
Undoubtedly the book that should be on every teenager’s list, The Catcher in the Rye is the story of Holden Caulfield who, at sixteen, is kicked out of prep school and returns to New York City before Christmas break. Feeling isolated and unsure of what is going to happen to him, Holden wants to protect all the children around him from the loss of innocence he has experienced. The Catcher in the Rye is the ultimate coming of age story.
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (Viking, 1962)
When Randal Patrick McMurphy pleads insanity to avoid prison, he ends up at a Oregon mental hospital and clashes with the head nurse. Chief Bromden, who pretends to be deaf and mute, watches as the ward is altered by McMurphy’s antics, such as taking some of the patients on a fishing trip, leading poker games and sneaking in alcohol and women. While McMurphy brings life back to the hospital, it’s the head nurse who has the power, and her actions have severe consequences for McMurphy.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (Penguin, 1962)
“Is it better for a man to have chosen evil than to have good imposed upon him?”
A classic dystopian novel about good and evil, A Clockwork Orange is known for its invented slang. Alex, a sixteen year old obsessed with classical music, engages in violent acts with his ‘droogs.’ After he is arrested and sent to prison, Alex is selected as a test subject for the Ludovico Technique, which conditions him to feel sick when he sees violence. Exploring human nature and freedom of choice, A Clockwork Orange is dark and gripping.
Cole Millar, JuniorThug
Amazing Spider-Man Volume 1: Worldwide by Dan Slott (Marvel, 2016)
The first issue in this series, Parker Industries has been hugely successful and is going international. Peter Parker, with his ‘body guard’ Spider-Man never far behind, is off to New York, Shanghai, London and San Francisco. But enemies are never far behind. With high tech gadgets and vehicles, Worldwide launches a new era of Spider-Man.
Warriors: The Darkest Hour by Erin Hunter (HarperCollins, 2004)
The sixth and final book in the original Warriors series, the ThunderClan is in danger because of Thunderstar’s quest for power. To save the clan, Fireheart must save the day by understanding a dark prophecy.
Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America by Jeff Ryan (Portfolio, 2011)
How did a video game about a plumber and the Japanese company that invented him change gaming and the world forever? Jeff Ryan explores the history of the Nintendo game console, the video game character that launched its success, and the many hurtles to success.
Secret Wars by Jonathan Hickman (Marvel, 2016)
This comic in The Avengers series explores a world where the Marvel Universe and the Ultimate Universe have collided and been destroyed. Now only a single planet called BattleWorld exists, and the secret wars must begin to decide the fate of the universe.
Survivors: The Empty City by Erin Hunter (HarperCollins, 2012)
Lucky is a golden haired dog who likes to be on his own and is good at taking care of himself. His life changes forever when the ground splits open and alters the world Lucky once knew. This new world is full of enemies and lacks food and water. Lucky has to become a pack dog to survive and now has to learn how to trust others.
Thank you to the BookThug Team who contributed to this list! This was a great year for books and we’re all so excited to see what 2016 has in store for us. We’re carving out more space on our bookshelves right now so we can make room for more great reads.
Want more best of 2015 books? Check out BookThug’s Best Reads of 2015: The Authors’ Edition!