My Best Books of 2015
“Read? Write? Bah! I have people who do that for me.” Thus a Sephardic great uncle of the Anglo-Egyptian food writer Claudia Roden once dismissed the bookish tendencies of the Ashkenazi Jews, one of whom she was about to marry. As the father of two keen readers (and husband and son of two others), I have sometimes felt a bit like just such a Levantine pasha waiting for reports from my underlings, particularly as regards the latest novels.
This MO allows me to be irresponsible and unzeitgemässe (or untimely), as the Germans say. The books I most enjoyed this year included Tom McCarthy’s novel Men in Space (from 2007), an experimental romp through 1990s Prague, and Charlotte Gill’s fascinating tree-planting memoir, Eating Dirt (2011). The novel I read in Spanish this year (I try to read at least one a year) was García Marquez’s El amor en los tiempos de cólera, the first edition of which had sat waiting on my shelves since 1987. That seems somehow appropriate, given the long interrupted love affair (“53 years, 7 months and 11 days”) the novel narrates. Even after all the Bolanõs, the tale of Florentino and Fermina beguiled me—sexier and more specific than I had imagined. But most surprising and enjoyable of all was Isak Dinesen’s extraordinary first book, Seven Gothic Tales (1932): wonderfully implausible and compelling stories, full of dream figures and haunting archetypes. Dinesen’s prose is so highly-wrought that you sometimes long for some bluntness, particularly when she describes a young woman assaulting her suitor in “The Monkey.” But then Mr. Blunt himself, Hemingway (who pipped her for the Nobel Prize one year), was a fan and don’t we get enough bluntness in daily life? And Dinesen (aka Karen von Blixen) writes so beautifully and with such intriguing wisdom and irony: “‘I think that I must explain to you,’ the Baron said, ‘…that to undress a woman was then a very different thing from what it must be now’” (“The Old Chevalier”).
In poetry, however, I do keep up—or just haven’t found the right underlings. I was very surprised that Karen Solie’s The Road In Is Not The Same Road Out did not receive more acclaim. It was, to my mind, the poetry book of the year in Canada and sent me back to her three previous books to admire her achievement. The Road struck me as less polished than her 2009 Griffin-winning Pigeon, but riskier and more ambitious: I particularly admired “Bitumen”, her long meditation on oil extraction that ranges from Newfoundland to Northern Alberta, from Turner and Gericault to Burtynsky. However over-determined and portentous it risks being (Keats: “we dislike poetry that has a design on us”), the poem has the singular virtue of engaging a subject matter very few poets have known how to—or dared—approach. But Solie doesn’t denounce—she documents our complicity and ambivalence (hence the Burtynsky). Plus, she has a wicked line in the ironically deployed archaism: “In April shall the tax collector flower forth” (that’s from Pigeon), “Is my house in order?”, “Where is thy market now?”
My new discovery of 2015 was Peter Norman and his The Gun that Starts the Race: some fine, resonant sonnets packed with brio and skill—plus a sense of humour that can veer off into joyous nonsense. Paul Muldoon’s new book, A Thousand Things Worth Knowing, brought the high formal wizardry and lexical treats I expected but somehow didn’t cohere or surprise the way his previous books did (admittedly a very high bar). Finally, it’s hard to have enough Don Coles: A Serious Call is essential reading–and re-reading–from the master. Plus, the gorgeously atmospheric and rambling title poem has led me to my latest untimely pleasure: Anna Karenina.