Montreal Gazettte: Rewind 2012: No shortage of top-shelf titles
By Ian McGillis, Gazette Literary Critic
MONTREAL – Gabriel Garcia Marquez can’t write anymore. Philip Roth says he won’t be writing anymore. Gore Vidal, Nora Ephron, David Rakoff and Maurice Sendak definitely won’t be writing anymore. With an attrition rate like that, you’d be forgiven for assuming that 2012 was, for readers, a decided downer. But as the array below will attest, it has been a year of riches.
Try as I may, I can’t read everything: Alice Munro, Peter Carey, Junot Diaz, Ian McEwan, Tamas Dobozy, Will Ferguson, Peter Dubé and Tess Fragoulis are just a few whose newest books taunt me, untouched, from the bedside table. Think of what follows, then, not as an attempt at a definitive Best of 2012, but rather an account of a year in reading by someone for whom books fall only slightly below oxygen and food in the list of life’s essentials.
Chris Ware’s Building Stories (Pantheon, $55) is so original that writing about it almost demands a whole new vocabulary. From its form (14 discrete volumes of varying size and format inside a large box) to its Escher-like approach to narrative (the volumes can be read in any order), this literary objet d’art — it can scarcely be called a book as we understand that word — can make you re-experience the thrill of first encountering literature. Best of all, the innovation is there to serve an immaculately observed human-scale story of an ordinary woman in an ordinary Chicago apartment block. You sense that if Ware hadn’t gone into cartooning, he could have been Raymond Carver. Newness notwithstanding, there’s nothing “difficult” about what Ware has done, beyond his occasional use of eyeball-straining lettering — and hey, we’ve never held small type against the compact edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, have we?
If it wasn’t already obvious, Carnival (Anansi, 289 pages, $29.95) confirms Rawi Hage is building a very special body of work; if anything, the Lebanese Montrealer’s third novel ups the ante from De Niro’s Game and Cockroach. T.F. Rigelhof calls Carnival “polyphonic” and I can think of no better word for what Hage has done here, drawing on the full range of modes both comic and tragic to provide a no-holds-barred rallying cry for the world’s underdogs and misfits. Rabelais is invoked in the epigraph and, remarkably, Hage ends up earning the comparison. I can’t wait to see where he goes next.
Anakana Schofield’s Malarky (Biblioasis, 225 pages, $19.95) introduced an indelible heroine into our national literature, no less so for the fact that she’s Irish. Inhabiting the sometimes confused but always indomitable mind of the grieving and randy Dublin housewife Our Woman, Schofield has created a note-perfect literary joyride, a “voice novel” in the best sense. An unaccountable collective oversight saw Malarky left off all the major prize short lists, but Amazon and other Internet indicators show that Irish-Canadian Schofield is finding readers regardless, and that’s as heartening a story as 2012 has provided.
In a rare shock-and-awe approach to literary marketing, ex-Montrealer Alix Ohlin came out with two fiction books simultaneously in 2012. The novel, Inside (Anansi, 256 pages, $22.95), got most of the love and is more than worthy, but I’m going to contrarily plump for the collection, Signs and Wonders (Anansi, 272 pages, $18.95), whose stories each contain sufficient layers to have been spun out to novel length but are all the stronger for their concentrated treatment.
Zadie Smith’s NW (Hamish Hamilton, 304 pages, $32) is a case of content overcoming form. The novel’s structural quirks sometimes unnecessarily obscure this study of female friendship and rivalry across race divides in class-bound contemporary London, but Smith’s protagonists and their environment are so richly drawn that they win through anyway.
In one of the year’s great “huh?” moments, NW was left off this year’s Man Booker Prize short list; of those that did make it, Jeet Thayil’s Narcopolis (Faber and Faber, 304 pages, $22), a lyrical look at modern-day Mumbai through a lens of hallucination-inducing intensity, is the one that made the greatest impression on me. That judgment by no means disrespects Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies (HarperCollins, 432 pages, $24.99), a historical novel so self-evidently great that even when Mantel pulled off the unprecedented coup of winning the Booker for the second time in three years, no one could muster a case against it.
A pair of American novels I came to a bit late proved to be high points of this or any other reading year — and both, entirely coincidentally, employed late-1970s California punk rock as their bedrock. Stone Arabia (Simon & Schuster, 256 pages, $16) by Dana Spiotta and A Visit from the Goon Squad (Anchor, 352 pages, $16.95) by Jennifer Egan, while very much their own books, gain power when read in close proximity, their themes of life unfolding in the long wake of youthful idealism and excess striking a mutually resonant chord.
What with all the heavy hitters (Cohen, Young, Springsteen, Jagger, Stewart, Townshend, et al.) lined up in the rock-biography lists for Christmas, it’s all the more important not to forget three exemplary music books from earlier in the year. The One: The Life and Music of James Brown (Gotham, 464 pages, $19) by R.J. Smith tells the life story of the conflicted self-made man who invented soul and funk (and arguably hip hop) in the only way suitable: as an epic, with a level of detail normally reserved for studies of politicians and literary titans. The Last Holiday (Grove Press, 384 pages, $18.95) by the late Gil Scott-Heron, one of Brown’s few rivals as an African-American musical trailblazer, vividly traces the author’s eventful life from the rural South to the world’s stages before drugs and other demons tragically brought him down. James Fearnley’s Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues (Faber and Faber, 416 pages, $25) is an insider’s view of the rise, reign and fall of the booze-fuelled London-Irish folk-punks, told in prose equal parts rueful and celebratory. It turns out wayward figurehead Shane MacGowan wasn’t the only poet in the band.
Surprise is one of the great perks of the reading life. A year ago, you could have got very good odds against three of my favourite new books of 2012 being about competitive swimming, horse racing and — ahem — sharpening pencils. But that’s exactly what happened. Leanne Shapton’s Swimming Studies (Blue Rider Press, 336 pages, $31.50), a set of impressionistic personal essays on the author’s life in the water before, during and after her attempt to become an Olympic-level swimmer, conveys the exhilaration (and the numbing monotony) of a single-minded pursuit and the wistfulness of realizing the dream was always out of reach. Kevin Chong’s My Year of the Racehorse: Falling in Love with the Sport of Kings (Greystone, 232 pages, $22.95) finds one of Canada’s sui generis literary figures recounting his experience as a newbie in the cloistered world of the racetrack, having decided to buy a horse instead of a condo. Somewhere, George Plimpton is gazing down at Chong and smiling. David Rees’s How to Sharpen Pencils: A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening (Melville House, 218 pages, $19.95) is exactly what it claims to be: follow this book’s instructions and your pencils will indeed be sharper than ever. Before you run away, though, be assured it’s a lot more, too. Rees all but dares you to call his project a joke, and it is indeed funny in its deadpan skewering of the yuppie artisanal movement, among other things. But a vein of melancholy runs through it, too, all the more effective for its apparent denial. Anyone this obsessed with pencils has got to be hiding some hurt, right?
It was a good year for memoirs and belles lettres. Salman Rushdie, in revisiting the time when The Satanic Verses saw him hunted for the crime of writing an imaginative work of art, has reclaimed his mojo: the towering Joseph Anton (Knopf Canada, 656 pages, $31.95) is his best book since … well, since The Satanic Verses. Jean-Claude Germain’s Rue Fabre: Centre of the Universe (Véhicule Press, 135 pages, $18), translated by Donald Winkler, illuminates the domestic details of the lost world of pre-Quiet Revolution Quebec. A late 2011 release, Ray Robertson’s Why Not?: Fifteen Reasons to Live (Biblioasis, 175 pages, $19.95) is an eloquent testament to one man’s rediscovery of the life force through the consolations of art.
The humour section, quite unfairly, remains a cobwebbed corner in most bookstores, with occasional crossovers like David Sedaris and Tina Fey getting a disproportionate share of the glory. Deserving of greater respect and success is Jonathan Goldstein’s I’ll Seize the Day Tomorrow (Penguin Canada, 256 pages, $24), in which the author walks us through his last year before turning 40, all the while winking at the very absurdity of the premise. If you think perfectly formed comic essays like Goldstein’s are easy to do, just try it. Also scoring high on the chortle meter this year were Dave Hill’s Tasteful Nudes (St. Martin’s, 240 pages, $28.99) and, still being absorbed as of this writing, Josh Freed’s He Who Laughs, Lasts (Véhicule Press, 156 pages, $20).
Chris Ware’s colossal achievement shouldn’t obscure other advances in the thriving realm of graphic literature. Tom Gauld’s Goliath (Drawn & Quarterly, 96 pages, $19.95) employs spare imagery and even sparer dialogue to render the hapless fall-guy giant of the Bible an existential hero. Jeff Lemire’s The Underwater Welder (Top Shelf Productions, 224 pages, $24.99) further refines the emotionally affecting way with blue-collar struggle and familial conflict that won Lemire so many fans with his Essex County trilogy. Guy Delisle’s Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City (Drawn & Quarterly, 320 pages, $24.95) is the most ambitious and counterintuitively funny of Delisle’s innocent-abroad accounts of everyday living in global hot spots.
Soapbox time: When is a North American publisher going to step up and publish Colin Grant’s brilliant Bageye at the Wheel (Jonathan Cape UK, 288 pages, $39.95)? Having devoured Grant’s biography of the original three-man Wailers, I came to his memoir of growing up in a London satellite town’s West Indian enclave with great anticipation, and it doesn’t disappoint. Writing of his formative years spent in the shadow of a reprobate father, Grant walks the funny-sad line without once putting a foot wrong. Come on, somebody, do the right thing!
Finally, reading a lousy book now and then is actually a good idea. It cleanses the palate and deepens one’s respect for the achievement of writing a good one. The experience is especially salutary when the writer in question has been great. It’s scarcely credible that Tom Wolfe’s bloated, sloppy and generally misconceived Back to Blood (Little, Brown and Company, 720 pages, $33) is by the same man who wrote The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and The Right Stuff, but apparently it is. However it was that this farrago of wrongness was allowed to happen, if you’re looking for bad — train-wreck bad — look no further.