I didn’t read Freedom.
A Visit from the Goon Squad was never on my radar.
There wasn’t enough time for The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.
Ditto for The Imperfectionists.
Room just sounded unpleasant.
What follows is my tally of my favourite books of the year. And as much as I love these titles, it’s invariably the omissions—those listed above, among hundreds of others—that tend to have a bigger influence on these year-end lists, at least when it comes to literature.
It’s still possible for an ambitious film reviewer to see every noteworthy film released in a given year. The same goes, at least conceivably, for music.
Not so with books. Here you have to think with your gut—there’s simply no time to read whatever lands on your desk. While I do my best to search out books beyond what the hype machines keep throwing at us, in the end I’m still, for better or worse, a product of my own inscrutable intuition.
So, in alphabetical order, here’s what came out on top for me in 2010.
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(1) Philip Hoare, The Whale (Ecco)
The case for whales being anointed World’s Coolest Animals has been made many times, but never in quite such a discursive and frothily British manner as Philip Hoare manages here. What begins as a vague travelogue quickly turns into a powerful meditation on all aspects of these massive, mysterious cetaceans, from the telekinetic power of their whale song to their recurring influence on our culture—and ending on the most astonishing note of all, when Hoare goes scuba-diving in the Atlantic and comes eye to eye with a real-life sperm whale. (Note: I actually read the British edition, titled Leviathan; or, the Whale, and released back in 2008. The re-christened North American edition came out in February.)
(2) A.L. Kennedy, What Becomes (House of Anansi)
The characters in this Scottish spitfire’s newest story collection are plagued by things departed: lovers, dream jobs, and, in the amputee story “As God Made Us,” entire limbs. They listen for footsteps in other rooms that never arrive. More than once they distractedly cut themselves with kitchen knives. What unites them is Kennedy’s kinetic language, her talent for concision and understatement, and her unflagging empathy for the worlds she conjures, no matter how sordid. If nothing else, these men and women can take solace in the fact that their creator is there suffering right alongside them.
Knighton’s second memoir about blindness, this one devoted to his new life as a parent, hits all of the sweet buttons and none of the saccharine ones. The witty Vancouver professor takes what could, in the wrong hands, be a narrative gimmick and recasts it a surprisingly obvious and humbling truth: all parents start out blind. The true test is how you learn to “read” your child as she develops, using whatever senses you have at your disposal—well, that, and not losing her in a snowbank. In both cases Knighton leads by example.
This exuberant, postmodern puzzle box of a novel, the first by Montreal-via-Manila’s Syjuco, garnered a lot of attention when it was first released back in May, but hasn’t really been mentioned since. What a shame. Ilustrado gets tremendous mileage out of its bricolage structure and high-wire stylistic daring, and does so without ever abandoning the murder mystery at its core. Don’t wait for the inevitable reappraisal 10 years from now—in which it will approvingly be compared to Roberto Bolaño—to discover this for yourself.
Remember how cool you thought you were when you were 18? How clever, and how smart? How you were the only one able to cut straight through society’s fog and call bullshit on all the phonies around you? Well, so does France’s Valtat—all too well. For all 90 spiraling pages of this slim novel, told in one continuous paragraph, he submerges you in the mind of an especially precocious teenager as he waits for the bus one morning before school. You’d want to punch this kid in the nose, if you didn’t also identify with him so embarrassingly.
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The Next Five: Don DeLillo, Point Omega; Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?; Zachary Mason, The Lost Books of the Odyssey; David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet; Vlado Žabot, The Succubus
(story also appeared in Vue Weekly, January 6, 2011)