Monthly Archives: December 2008

Top Ten Books of 2008, and a contest!

This was a tough one! I read so many great books this year, and I chose the top ten not on any official scale of literary quality but just on what lingered with me the longest — which books, when I scrolled back through the year’s reading list, evoked a reaction of “Yes! That one was great!” or “Wow, that really made me think!” I was left with a handful of novels whose characters still haunt me, a couple of memoirs — one about failure, one about addiction in the family, one about trying to follow the Bible when you don’t believe in it — and a few other books on topics I care passionately about.

The top five spots on the list were easy — no question about those.  The bottom five were much more hotly contested because there were probably another three or four novels that could have gone into those spots, and I really had to wrestle with which ones to choose.  It’s always a bit of a judgement call.

I’m having a little trouble adding up and making the numbers come out evenly, but let’s say this year I read and reviewed about 60 novels and 20 non-fiction books (although a few of those were “old favourites,” which makes them ineligible for the Top Ten list as that has to be books I read for the first time this year). I read 38 books by men and 42 books by women — much closer than usual, since I generally read considerably more by women. I must be discovering more good male authors.

Some other interesting observations: I read three times as many novels as non-fiction books, but the final list is half-and-half fiction and nonfiction.  I think I read so many novels that a lot of them are bound to be “just so-so,” whereas I don’t usually pick up a nonfiction book unless I’ve heard good things about it or have some reason to suspect I’ll like it.

Without further ado, my top ten picks are:

1. Home, by Marilynne Robinson
2.
Me, Myself and Bob, by Phil Vischer
3.
Jesus for President, by Shaine Claiborne and Chris Haw
4.
Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson
5.
The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs
6.
Beautiful Boy, by David Sheff
7.
Atonement, by Ian MacEwan
8.
The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, by Joshilyn Jackson
9.
In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, by Gabor Mate
10.
Skin Room, by Sara Tilley

Now, what you really want to know is: how can I win one of these books? Click here to go to the contest rules on my main blog, Hypergraffiti.

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An Imperfect Librarian, by Elizabeth Murphy

librarianHere’s another review that starts with a “yes, I know the author” disclaimer. I used to work for Elizabeth Murphy a few years ago, when I was in grad school. I was her research assistant.  She often talked, then, about the novel she was working on.  But she was so completely dedicated to and involved with her academic work that I wondered if the novel would ever be reality, or if she was one of the many would-be writers who would keep putting creative writing on the back burning in favour of research and other career-related work.

You can imagine how pleasantly surprised I was, then, to get an invitation to the launch of Elizabeth’s novel, An Imperfect Librarian.  It’s the story of Carl Brunet, who moves to St. John’s, Newfoundland to work at the university library while recovering from a painful and messy separation from his wife.  As Carl settles awkwardly into his new life, making friends and exploring a new romance, the novel explores the unique experience of someone coming from “away” into the tight-knit world of St. John’s, Newfoundland.

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Searching for God Knows What, by Donald Miller

searchingDonald Miller’s Searching for God Knows What begins with an anecdote that sums up some of what I like best and what I like least in his writing.  In this opening story, Miller goes to a  Christian writers’ workshop to get some tips on the novel he’s working on.  His analysis of the other conference attendees and speakers (whom he describes as “Very small people … mostly women”) is funny, but also annoyingly patronizing and chauvinistic, as in the following passage:

“The lady sitting next to me was writing a wonderful series of Christian devotionals for girls who were taking ballet classes, and the lady on the other side of me was writing a series of devotionals you could read while drinking tea.  When she told me this, a lady in front of us turned around and smiled because she was working on a series of devotionals you could read while drinking coffee. I told them their books sounded terrific, because it is true that some people like tea and some people like coffee, and for that matter, some people dance in ballets.”

It’s that dismissive tone that gets my back up, the hip, edgy young male passing judgement on this group of middle-aged Christian women, prioritizing his understanding of God and of the calling of a Christian writer above theirs.  But the joke is at least partly on Donald Miller; he reveals that he was not only unaware that this was a seminar for nonfiction writers, but that he wasn’t entirely clear on the distinction between fiction and non-fiction. One of the small Christian “ladies” had to explain that to him.

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The Rose of York trilogy by Sandra Worth

roseofyork1Reading two-thirds of Sandra Worth’s perfectly acceptable trilogy on the life of Richard III (I read the first two volumes: Love and War and Crown of Destiny) didn’t reveal anything that’s not already familiar to any good Ricardian.  Worth’s Richard III is strikingly different from Shakespeare’s hunchbacked villain, but familiar to many readers of twentieth-century rehabilitations of King Richard III (or Ring Kitchard the Thrid, as he’s always known in our house, due to a Monty Python sketch). 

This Richard is a decent, humble, honourable man, deeply in love with his cousin Anne Neville, loyally devoted to his brother Edward IV while recognizing Edward’s flaws. He is forced into taking the throne almost against his will, rather than cruelly snatching the throne away from his innocent nephew and then killing the two little Princes in the Tower (I didn’t read the third volume of Worth’s trilogy so I can’t be certain whom she ends up blaming for the deaths of the princes, but I’m pretty darn certain it’s not going to be Richard, that paragon of virtue and good government).

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Through Black Spruce, by Joseph Boyden

blackspruce

Through Black Spruce, this year’s Giller Prize winner, is a powerful and moving novel, though I didn’t find it as earth-shattering as Boyden’s debut, Three Day Road.  Through Black Spruce is in some sense a sequel to Three Day Road; one of its two narrators is Will Bird, son of Xavier Bird from Three Day Road. 

Will is an aging bush pilot who has lost most of the people he cares deeply for, and whose second chance at happiness is thwarted by a feud with a local drug dealer.  The other narrator is Will’s niece Annie, a young woman who left her northern Canadian native community to search for her sister Suzanne, a model who disappeared in one of the big cities of the south. 

 

In Toronto, Montreal and New York, Annie explores her own modelling career, finds a mute but attractive young man who becomes first her protector and then her lover, and discovers that the world of overnight celebrity is shallow and unfulfilling (now that’s a shock).

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Hold on to Your Kids, by Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate

holdonto

After reading Gabor Mate’s In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts, I was interested enough to seek out some of his other work.  As a parent, I was naturally drawn to Hold On To Your Kids, which he co-wrote with Dr. Gordon Neufeld, who in fact turned out to be the primary researcher behind this book.

 

Neufeld’s and Mate’s hypothesis in this book is that in our society, peers have replaced parents as the most important influence in a child’s world.  Parents have been led to believe that it is natural for peers to take their place in their children’s lives, but in fact this has never been “normal” in any other society but ours.  Children need to continue to learn from their parents and maintain a close attachment with then, even as they grow into their teens. Peer orientation – depending primarily on peers for values, guidance and self-worth – inevitably leads to low self-esteem, trouble with authority, and all kinds of social ills.

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The Lace Reader, by Brunonia Barry

lacereader

The Lace Reader is one of those intriguing novels where revelations made near the end of the book make you question all the conclusions you’ve drawn while reading it.  But I really shouldn’t have been surprised, because we are warned from the beginning that Towner Whitney is going to be an unreliable narrator. Even her name, Towner, isn’t what it appaers to be – nor is much else about her life.

 

Towner is a young woman with a troubled past, scarred by family dysfunction and mental illness. She returns to her family home in Salem, Massachusetts when her great-aunt Eva dies, but she has no desire to step back into her painful past. Towner hopes to escape the past rather than relive it – but instead she is forced to confront memories so painful they will change everything she thinks she knows.

 

This is a cleverly constructed novel with a strong sense of place and some beautiful writing. I found it slow to get into, perhaps because Towner’s characdter kept me at a distance – I was much more drawn in when the narration shifted to the viewpoint of Rafferty, the policeman who befriends Towner.

 

But it’s Towner’s point of view that’s the essential one here, because it’s her version of the story that the reader has to examine and question.  Some readers will be inexorably drawn in to Towner’s world, while others, like me, will feel a little uncomfortable with her, while remaining intrigued and impressed by the world her author has created.

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