10 Favourite Reads from 2011
Some of these books might seem like overly obvious choices, especially considering that several won big awards. But when I looked through the list of the books I’d read in 2011, these were the books that I remember truly enjoying the most this year. They were the ones that captivated me in one way or another. In alphabetical order by author’s last name, here they are:
Katrina Barton Best, Bird Eat Bird
Katrina Barton Best is a wickedly funny and skilled writer. These stories are so entertaining that I read the entire book in a day, in a huge gulp, barely leaving the couch. The characters are quirky, and their conflicts are unusual. With this debut collection of stories, Katrina won the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, Canada and the Caribbean. She grew up in the UK but now lives in Montreal, so I even have the pleasure of seeing her around at readings once in a while. I would say she’s definitely one of Montreal’s top writers to watch.
Lynn Coady, The Antagonist
This main character of this novel, Rank, had one of the most original and entertaining voices I’ve read in a long time. Though I’ve seen it classified as a “hockey novel,” it really had very little to do with hockey. Rank tells his life story by way of e-mails to an old college friend. This is the first book I’ve read by Canadian Lynn Coady, and now I want to go read everything she’s written.
Joan Didion, Play It As It Lays
One of Joan Didion’s early novels, this is an old classic that I finally got around to reading. And I was very happy I did, despite it not being the most, err, uplifting of books. Though it was published in 1970, the writing still feels innovative. I’m more familiar with Didion’s non-fiction writing (Blue Nights is at the top of my “To Read” list for 2012), and now I’d like to delve into more of her fiction.
Emma Donoghue, Room
This book was much-hyped after its release in 2010. I wasn’t sure if it could live up to the hype, but it drew me into a unique, imaginary world in a way that no book has in a long time. The majority of the narrative takes place in a single room, and is told through the voice of five-year-old Jack. A real page-turner.
Esi Edugyan, Half-Blood Blues
This novel won this year’s Giller Prize, and I have to say that I was rooting for Esi Edugyan after reading it. Half-Blood Blues tells the story of an ageing jazz musician in Baltimore, going back in time to revisit him and his band-mates as they move through Berlin and Paris at the beginning of the Second World War. It offers a unique perspective on being black in Nazi Germany. Beautiful writing.
Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad
Winner of the Pulitzer prize for fiction, this was another much-hyped book that surprisingly lived up to my expectations (perhaps in part because I read it before at least some of the hype – I did start to tire of all the Jennifer Egan coverage at a certain point). It tells the story of a rock music executive, his assistant, and the people surrounding them. Notable for its innovative narrative structure, and for being the first book I’ve read with an entire chapter written in PowerPoint. I thought the PowerPoint chapter would feel overly gimmicky, but it actually worked really well and was fun rather than showy or tiring. A highly entertaining read.
Stephen Elliott, The Adderall Diaries: A Memoir
In this unusual memoir that is really only part memoir, Stephen Elliott (founding editor of The Rumpus) relates his fascination with a murder case, and his involvement with the case’s suspects. This storyline is interwoven with tales of his writer’s block, adderall addiction, relationship with his father, search for self, and much more. The result is complicated and compelling.
Jeffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides is another writer who has been in the media a lot lately (I’ve lost track of the number of interviews with him I’ve read in the past few months). On the surface, The Marriage Plot is a more straightforward book that his last, the sprawling Middlesex. I couldn’t help but identify with the protagonist, Madeleine, a Victorian novel-loving English major whose life is shaken up when she takes Semiotics 101 and is introduced to deconstructionist theory, as well as the charismatic Leonard. The narrative follows three main characters through college and the scary years beyond it. In a recent interview in The Paris Review, Eugenides explains that the progression of his work has gone “from sentence, to plot, to character.” I can see how that plays out in his three novels, with The Marriage Plot being, as he puts it, “a highly character-driven book.” And that’s why I couldn’t put this book down: I got hooked on the characters, and wanted to know what would happen to them.
Darcie Friesen Hossack, Mennonites Don’t Dance
This debut collection of short stories likely introduced some urban-dwelling Canadians to a world they were mostly (perhaps unless they’d read some Miriam Toews) unfamiliar with: the small towns and Mennonite traditions of the Canadian prairies. At least, that’s what it did for me. And it painted this world so beautifully and brilliantly, earning Darcie Friesen Hossack a spot on the shortlist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book, Canada and the Caribbean. Another young Canadian writer to watch – I look forward to her next book.
Michael Winter, The Architects Are Here
I have a special place in my heart for a certain group of novels coming out of Newfoundland (which may have at least something to do with me being an Atlantic Canadian), and Michael Winter is one of my favourite writers in this group. (Not to mention his sister, Kathleen Winter – if I had made a top 10 list for 2010, Kathleen Winter’s novel Annabel would have been very high up on the list. I was kind of torn apart by the beauty of that book.) The Architects Are Here was published in 2007, and picks up the narrative thread of Winter’s 2002 novel This All Happened (another one I loved), with the return of protagonist Gabriel English. It follows the complicated relationships between Gabe, his friend David, and his sometimes-girlfriend Nell in a story that’s funny and tragic at the same time.