Best of 2011

We asked our contributors from the past year for their reading picks from 2011. Here is what they had to share.

Donna Caruso, author of Eating Beets During Menopause

Here are my three favourite books from 2011 (not necessarily written in 2011). I write in several genres, so I picked from different ones.

Light Lifting by Alexander MacLeod: a gripping set of short stories that are relentless in their fierceness. One after the other, these bold stories see and tell the truth.

Marie-Anne, The Extraordinary Life of Louis Riel’s Grandmother by Maggie Siggins: a book about a woman brave and exceptional, tells a unique and fresh story about Canadian history. Through the personal life of Marie-Anne, we see what it means to be an unconventional woman, and we see the power of the Canadian landscape influencing distant and local struggles which play out around her.

A Pigeon and a Boy by Meir Shalev: a beautiful story about the importance of having a home. In wartime Israel, a boy’s legendary life comes by chance to revolve around homing pigeons, and so the story of his life, his true love, and his death, are woven through the narrator’s own personal postwar trials. This story within a story expertly weaves the two together to show the universal need for a home.

~ ~ ~

Will Cordeiro, author of La Perruque

Dean Young’s Fall Higher is a wonderful collection by a contemporary master writing at the top of his form. The errant urgency of his insouciant hijinks never lacks for heart—just as the poems themselves were written under the shadow of Young’s all-too-literal search for a heart transplant. Humble and humorous, they are songs sprayed in graffiti to the gravitas of everyday failure: thankfully, he now has a new organ and continues to pump out more heart-stopping lyrics.

While Charles Wright’s Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems presents searing meditations on mortality, a tapestry of star-crossed darkness wrought stitch by stitch, I want to give a shout-out to Outtakes,
which reproduces the typescript disjecta from Sestets—including scribbled editorial liner notes. A collaboration that includes images from Eric Appleby, the book offers evidence that the poetic journey is as much about its own unfinished process as it is about confronting that ultimate finish-line.

Last, I’ll mention Angina Days, Michael Hofmann’s translation of selected poems by Güntar Eich. Despite some missteps and uncalled for liberties—such as the translation of Nilpferd (meaning “hippopotamus”) as rhinoceros—Hofmann’s renderings, much like his wonderful 2006 translation of Durs Grünbein, have a pared down and quirky texture that reads well in English. While the book lacks the radio plays and prose poems for which Eich is renown, the poems capture the subtle undertones of heterotopic political angst that manifest in such mundane things as TV guides or delays at airport terminals.

~ ~ ~

Ann Diamond, author of Mutant Love

I did more roofing this year than reading, but looking back these were the books that most impressed me:

Unrepentant: Disrobing the Emperor by Kevin Annett
A young United Church minister, hired to bring the word of God to a remote community on Vancouver Island, startles his white congregation by reaching out to native people in the community. Opening the doors of his church to them, and listening to their stories, he begins to stumble on graves of murdered children. The church officials order him to stop. He follows his conscience, reaps the whirlwind, loses wife, children, reputation, career, prospects. Soon he has nowhere to go but downtown to Vancouver’s Lower East Side, where Canada’s victims gather. This is a sequel to his earlier memoir, Love and Death in the Valley. Beautifully written, both extremely gripping and unforgettable. Readers may notice haunting echoes of Russell Banks: opening scene of small-town innocence in pristine wilderness/ quick dissolve/ deep descent into hell.

Inside the LC: The Strange but Mostly True Story of Laurel Canyon and the Birth of the Hippie Generation by Dave McGowan
McGowan’s disturbing revisionist history of Laurel Canyon, birthplace of the Peace and Love Generation, begins with a series of stupefying revelations linking just about every sixties’ rock icon to US military intelligence. Had he extended his search to England and investigated the role of MI5 in setting up the EMI recording label, he could have added Mick Jagger et al. to the list of rock stars whose careers were engineered in Cold War laboratories. He goes on to dissect the peculiar influence of mass murderer Charles Manson on key figures of the hippie aristocracy that sprang up overnight like magic mushrooms along Laurel Canyon Boulevard, which had a top secret military laboratory hidden away at the top of it. McGowan is an impeccable researcher and a superb ironist, which makes Inside the LC hard to put down, although it’s still missing a final chapter.

I’m not even sure if I liked it more than Wagging the Moondoggie, McGowan’s hilarious exposé of the Apollo Space Program, which made me scream with laughter, something I rarely do when reading conspiracy literature. By the end, I could not believe I had actually been fooled into thinking the moon landings were real.This is at least partly due to McGowan’s exceptional skills as a satirist, but also to the (alarmingly, childishly) faked appearance of the lunar landing module, the mystery of millions of photos that have gone missing, and other strange anomalies that he brings to light.

~ ~ ~

Cynthia Dockrell, author of How to Stop a Suicide

Although the piece I wrote for carte blanche was an essay, I generally read more fiction than anything else and am writing mostly short stories now. My favorite collection from 2011, hands down, was Jim Shepard’s You Think That’s Bad The stories show an astonishing range of subject and characters, all of them so expertly rendered that I consumed the whole collection in one sitting. It was like eating an entire plateful of cookies, without the guilt.

My other favorite read of the year was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. The way Egan structured this novel-in-stories was captivating, and not just because of the much-discussed PowerPoint chapter. Following the characters through the decades, watching them find and leave each other, listening to their unique voices—it all added up to one of the richest reading experiences I’ve read in years.

~ ~ ~

Veronica Gaylie, author of Sacred Street

Evidence by Mary Oliver
Mary Oliver’s poems honour nature with close observation and total honesty. This book was on my desk for most of the year.

Night Work (The Sawchuck Poems) by Randall Maggs
The hockey life of NHL player Terry Sawchuck, told through sharp, clear, vernacular verse. Keeps me honest.

Best Loved Poems (Ed by Neil Philip)
A mix of classical greats (Dickinson, Heaney, Yeats), beautifully illustrated. I carried this book around France with me last summer so the cover is all creased and worn. (Always good to have Wordsworth’s Daffodils within reach.)

~ ~ ~

Daniel Ha, author of A Sunset

Paying for It by Chester Brown
A very interesting read (even the 20 pages of notes were page turners) that made me think about and question my stance on prostitution, love and marriage. I read the 227-page graphic novel in one sitting. It is very well drawn despite the simple style and well paced while using merely an eight panel grid.

~ ~ ~

Julie Mahfood, author of Constraint on an Uneasy Sea

It’s been a slow year for me and new collections of poetry, but the one that springs to mind is Stephanie Bolster’s A Page From the Wonders of Life on Earth. It’s a fabulous collection, which, to me, has her move closer to, and at times be more present in, the world of her observation. I very much enjoyed reading the poems in her newest book.

~ ~ ~

Scott Asa Miller, author of Just a Few, Dead Now

I love language and I look forward to more work from the following short fiction authors in 2012.

Kim Chinquee’s “Buster” is a fantastic example of ingenuity in short fiction. I’ve read this story a dozen times.

Divorcer by Gary Lutz
I always look forward to what’s next from Gary. Just reading an interview with him demonstrates his profound intensity as a writer. His work is for the page-hugger.

Books, Trains, and Everything” by Karen Lillis, from Bagging The Beats At Midnight: Confessions of an Indie Bookstore Clerk
Karen is a lighthouse in Pittsburgh. She is prolific and dedicated to indie writers.

~ ~ ~

Ainsley Olsen, author of Pieces

Touch Sensitive by Chris Ware
This came out as an e-book through McSweeney’s iPhone/ iPad app. A must-read on iPad. This is BY FAR my favorite of anything Chris Ware has ever published and, considering my belief that Chris Ware should be crowned king, that’s really saying something. I am usually far more interested in his drawing than in the actual story represented, but for once, they really work well together for me. If only it was about 300 pages longer! Even my exceptionally conservative, close-minded father-in-law couldn’t put it down. I think he might actually respect comics now (only proving my theory that Chris Ware is a god amongst men…)!

Paying for It by Chester Brown
Since I also do largely autobiographical work, I know how difficult it can be to decide to risk hurting your family and friends by being nakedly honest. I can’t help but respect work that requires such bravery. Beyond that, the work is powerful and eye-opening. Chester Brown takes a subject that usually follows a projected plot to come to the same conclusion, fraught with lessons on morality. Instead, he teaches us not to judge. There are two sides to every coin and Chester Brown covers both of those and then some.

h day by Renee French
This may be cheating because this book came out in November of 2010, but since I live abroad, I didn’t get it until well into 2011. I love anything Renee French publishes. Her graphite drawings are enthralling, enigmatic, and bizarre. Read this and everything else she writes.

~ ~ ~

James Romberger, author of Raymond

Crickets #3 by Sammy Harkham (self published)
In the main story “Blood of the Virgin”, a man involved in film production risks his marriage in an effort to advance his career; it is a well-researched and closely-observed example of coherent and sensitive comics storytelling.

Blast Furnace Funnies by Frank Santoro
A moving and ephemeral comics meditation on memory and the transitions of the urban environment, beautifully drawn and colored.

Ganges #4 by Kevin Huizenga
The boundaries between sleep and waking and the diagramming of consciousness are explored with inventively designed comic pages and innovative graphic usage of limited color.

~ ~ ~

Janet Smith, author of I Mr. Spock

My favorite this year was Dean Young’s The Art of Recklessness. Its long essay/meditations on poetry made me think more deeply about why writing is important and about how to live a creative life. I literally almost fell off the treadmill reading it.

~ ~ ~

John Taylor, translator of From Wandering Mortal

Words the Interrupted Speak by Paul B. Roth
Often set among natural surroundings that range from the author’s own garden to somewhat wilder countryside in which, for example, snow fallen on a log lying across a rippling creek evolves into a Baudelairean correspondance with “the wrinkles [his] body carries to its own end,” the fifty poetic prose texts of Paul B. Roth’s Words the Interrupted Speak spin unsettling, somehow sinuous stories. But what does story mean here? In many cases, a kind of exploration. There is introspection, but also a sense of moving towards. Roth indeed links acts to acts until an “event” is related or at least suggested, yet all standard narrative elements are equally caught up in strangely metamorphosing imagery that also engages his thoughts, expectations, emotions, dreams, and imaginative fantasies. Causes which, logically, would lead to foreseeable effects are allowed to shift their influence elsewhere, to cross borders as it were, even as “the warm halo around a lamp flame as it hovers above a splintering gray table” does not keep the narrator inside, presumably self-absorbed, but rather draws him “out into the early spring night” where he discovers that “winter has buried its dead” and where he imagines himself, the next day, “raking its shredded and unidentifiable bodies into piles, slow-working them into voices earthworms speak while tending [his] garden.” Roth is a prose stylist. His oft-longish sentences unfold until something precious, haunting, or promising is disclosed. They can be savored and pondered as each prose poem artfully forms or recounts an essential mystery that is now also ours to spot. Often an insight or perception—”everything runs from us, hides with eyes fixed on us at all times”— opens out onto unexpected existential, even metaphysical vistas. This is a rare book, which reveals a poet who is seeking the deep passages between inner experience and the outer world—and even beyond.

~ ~ ~

Deepam Susan Wadds, author of Choose the Hammock

The stack beside my bed grows taller every week, which is my way of saying that most of the books I read this year were published long before 2011 or even 2010. For instance, I am in the process of reading Yann Martell’s Self, published several years ago.

Two more recent books stand out for me, however. One is Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich, a literary novel about a woman who keeps two notebooks: one for the prying eyes of her husband, the other just for herself. One of the aspects I found most intriguing about this book is that the reader does not know who the narrator is until the end. I loved the lush sensuous detail, the complexity of the characters, and the discomfort I felt at having such an intimate experience of how this alcoholic couple used one another. The other literary novel I enjoyed was Steven Heighton’s Every Lost Country. I got the sense that the author created these characters and then imagined the most dramatic and intense situation to put them in to see what they would do, and then followed them around. I admire his deft handling of character, landscape, sexual tension, and the political climate of Tibet and China.

~ ~ ~

Clint Walker, author of Ticks

501 Essential Backgammon Problems by Bill Robertrie
I’ve been obsessed with backgammon ever since my grandmother bought me a gift certificate for one of those farming supply stores when I was a kid, and a beginner set was all I could find to spend it on. Maybe it’s because I think chess is a sick joke of a game that people continue to play even though it’s pointless, or because I think backgammon is a better representation of life, but I’ve devoted perhaps too much time to “mastering” it; something that’s hard to do in any game involving dice. This book, among with two others written by Robertrie (yes, I own all three) have helped a lot. I introduced the game (like a virus) into the writing center at Eastern Illinois Universtiy, where I totally crushed one of my co-workers in a 23 point match using DYNAMIC PLAY principles Robertrie espouses. After that, we created a game called “Basket Cup” which involves beanbags, a couch, a basket and a cup that took up the remandier of our time there. We considered it our Legacy Gift to the University after we graduated, although I’m certian our boss erased the scoring rules from the dry erase board the exact moment we crossed the stage with our diplomas. As for 501 Problems, it’s actually taught me a lot about writing, since it’s just what the title promises; 501 snapshots of backgammon games in progress, with the dice rolls provided. You have to decide the best move possible and then check your guess with the solutions in the back. Eventually I found that’s the best way to start writing something… just by joining an impossible situation in progress, picking two numbers, and then trying to hack together the best moves, right or wrong.

~ ~ ~

Thank you to all our contributors for sharing their recommendations with us.

If you would like to share your favourite 2011 books with us, please do! Send us an email listing the title, author, and genre, and a few sentence about why you liked it.

Happy reading!