Saturday, January 2, 2010

My Favourite Ten Books of 2009

So as a year-end wrap-up type article, I thought I'd write about my favourite and least favourite literary experiences of 2009 -- the books that I've read this year -- as well as mention my literary hopes for the New Year.

The Best Ten Books I Read in 2009
10. The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford
This early-twentieth-century modernist novel was one of the few silent-personal-drama types that actually really kept my attention. Ford plays with chronology, detail, and character development in such a way that the affairs of Edward and Leonora unfold like a murder mystery.

9. The Divine Ryans by Wayne Johnson
Taking place in St. John's in 1967, the endearing failure of a nine-year-old hockey-loving anti-hero struggles to cope with his father's recent death and his family's suffocating under his matriarchal aunt. It's a funny coming-of-age story that touches on the importance of family, religion, and hockey to Canadians in the sixties.

8. A Bird in the House by Margaret Lawrence

7. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This novel is ostensibly about a kid who survives almost a year in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, but I personally was more enthralled by the religious subplot. Pi is hailed by his religious leaders as an excellent Hindu, Christian, and Muslim boy -- at the same time. Even when lost at sea, Pi prays five times a day facing Mecca and says Hail Marys during storms. The end will leave you wondering: what does it all mean?

6. Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky
This 1944 novel would have been much better had it been finished, but considering the circumstances (Irène Némirovsky was an ethnic Jew and Russian living in France during WWII and died in Auschwitz) the fact that we have it at all, not to mention how exquisitely well-written it is, is a minor miracle. The appendices -- notes from Némirovsky's notebook for the unwritten three movements and correspondence between her, her family, and her publisher -- are almost as interesting as the novel itself. The intertwining and overlapping stories of people of all ages and classes fleeing Paris and then living under the Nazi occupation is enthralling, with a fair number of surprises. You could call this the WWII novel for people who don't like WWII novels.

5. Fight Club by Chuck Palihaniuk
I read this in my Studies in American Literature seminar, which was focused on utopias and dystopias. I thought this was a bit of a cryptic choice for a utopia class; is our very world of today a dystopia? (Typically "dystopia" novels are of the 1984 variety; tyrannical government control, mass unhappiness, or at least a nuclear holocaust or endemic zombie problem.) And why do fistfights make men feel better about their dystopia? I have my own theories, the scope of which don't fit here; read it and draw your own conclusions.

4. Lives of Girls and Women by Alice Munroe
When I wrote about this novel in my Canadian Fiction seminar, I wrote about how I loved Alice Munroe not shying away from sex in a coming-of-age story. Del's pregnant friend tells her that "Everyone does it," meaning sex. Look! People have been promiscuous forever! (Anne of Green Gables, for example, never had sex.) Friend and fellow reader Bruno pointed out that women seem to write disproportionately about sexual freedoms whereas real women "like doing other things" besides sex. While women pretty much like sex about as much as men do (and when we like doing something, we really enjoy talking about it), I don't want Bruno or you to think that this novel is just another feminist sexual liberation novel; it's funny and thoughtful and explores social pressures and relationships and pride and belonging and individuality among girls and women in small-town Canada in the first half of the twentieth century. If you've read and liked Lives of Girls and Women, I recommend you check out The Birth House by Ami McKay.

3. Green Grass Running Water by Thomas King
If Canadians are known for their sense of humour, this book's sense of humour is distinctly Canadian. Centered on a handful of members of a Blackfoot community in Alberta, the novel draws on oral storytelling techniques and King's delightful character of Coyote, the mischievous character who talks to both the narrator and hangs out with the cryptic, mysterious characters of Hawkeye, The Lone Ranger, Robinson Crusoe, and Ishmael. The humour is cynical at times, ridiculous at others -- and I challenge you to see if you can get each and every joke and reference.

2. La Guerre, Yes Sir! by Roch Carrier
Before I read La Guerre, Yes Sir! I knew Roch Carrier as the guy who wrote Le chandail de hockey, the children's book about playing pond hockey and quoted on the $5 bill. This short, hilarious novel is about the funeral of a WWII casualty and his wake in his small québécois village. One woman is town is hiding both her husband and her lover in the attic to save them from the draft and to ensure she always has a man to, ahem, meet her needs; another soldier is home on leave and has brought his recent bride, a prostitute and an anglophone; the dead soldier's family try to offer tourtière and cider to the anglophone army men who don't understand them and condemn the québécois, who spend the wake not only praying but getting drunk, telling dirty stories, and fighting. An excellent read, and you can tackle it in an afternoon.

1. LAMB: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
This is probably the funniest book I have ever read -- and yet, it offers a very fair treatment of the life of Jesus, a boy coming of age and curious about sex even though he is supposed to be without sin. I read it for a class called The Historical Jesus (more a history class than a religion class), and so duly noted that Moore did his research when including historical details about life in Nazareth in the first century AD. Moore imagines Jesus' childhood, his lost years (i.e. before he started his ministry), and his life up until his arrest, through the eyes of his childhood best friend, Biff. During the "lost years", Jesus and Biff journey to the east to find and seek wisdom from the wise men who attended Jesus' birth, and who teach him about Taoism, Bhuddism, and Hinduism before Jesus returns to start his ministry. There are a lot of gems of wisdom -- and history -- tucked away in this uproariously funny novel; it's the kind of thing you can read while on holiday, and still feel like you've read something important when you're finished.

The Biggest Disappointments of 2009
The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquart
I'd always heard that this was a big one in CanLit, and my reader-aunt loved it, but when I finally got around to it -- what a letdown. There was nothing original about the main character, Klara, and although her brother Tillman was interesting, not nearly enough time was devoted to him. I had to force myself to finish the book; the ending was trite and horribly contrived. It was as if Urquart forgot what she wanted to say by the end and just kind of threw everything into place at the last minute, like a school play in which things go awry backstage during the second act.

World Without End by Ken Follet
I've always been a fan of Follet for easy summer paperback reading; although his characters can be formulaic at times, his plots are always page-turners, and he writes very interesting and multifaceted villains, often refusing to make his villains pure evil or his heroes morally spotless. I especially enjoyed Pillars of the Earth, to which this novel was a sequel. Unfortunately, Follet scooped out everything good about Pillars and wrote a huge tome that, despite being moderately entertaining, had villains that were evil to the core, heroes who were perfect, a plot that dragged heavily by the end, and a happily-ever-after ending played out by characters who seemed like minor variations on the ones from Pillars. Twenty-five years, and this is his long-anticipated sequel?

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
I was looking forward to reading this as it seemed like a crowd favourite among many of my reader-friends. And though I absolutely love the concept, I just couldn't get into Kerouac's prose; I found it thick and difficult. I didn't feel like the character of Sal (the narrator) was developed well either. Dean may have been the hero, but it seemed like Sal didn't consider himself an important character. At times I felt like I was waiting for things to happen while Dean spouted off his craziness. It was an okay book, but not nearly what I'd been hoping for.

Books I am Excited to Read in 2010
Extraordinary Canadians: Pierre Elliot Trudeau by Nino Ricci
When I first heard about the new series, edited by John Ralston Saul, I knew right away that I'd want to read most, if not all of them. These are biographies written by novelists, instead of journalists or other nonfic writers, and if the excerpt from Daniel Poquelin's René Lévesque is any indication, it was a fantastic idea.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill
It won Canada Reads 2009 among other awards, and also came highly recommended by a few of my reader-friends. It's been sitting on my bookshelf after my mother loaned it to me six months ago -- why haven't I read it yet??

La grosse femme d'à côté est enciente and Thérèse et Pierrette à l'école des Saints-Anges by Michel Tremblay
Another book that's been on my shelf for six months. I even started reading Thérèse et Pierrette over the summer, when I bought in in a used book store in Montréal. Why haven't I finished it yet? All I can say is, man, reading novels in French is hard.

Bonjour Tristesse by Françose Sagan
Another French book that I've so far neglected to read, but this one is on quite a few must-read or best-book lists, and also, my copy is purse-sized, so I've no excuses really.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut
I found this one in a used book store for an unbeatable price and, after reading Slaughterhouse-Five and A Man Without a Country, I couldn't resist. (I've also read Bagombo Snuff Box. Being some of Vonnegut's earlier stuff, its ho-hum-ness is forgiveable.) School reading and whatnot made me forget about it until now. Maybe I should just read less for school?