Tuesday, December 20, 2011

My Favourite Books of 2011

Sticking with last year's approach, these are my favourite five books in any genre from 2011.

1) Grant Buday, White Lung (1999). The title derives from the occupational hazards inherent in working at a mass-production bakery. Buday is a severely underplugged veteran novelist, short story writer, travel essayist, and (most recently) memoirist, and here, in the former capacity, he penned an honest, emotionally versatile, complex tale of class necessity, subterfuge, and plans both thwarted and promising. Notice I didn't frame it "working class". Buday is observant, intellectually honest, and enlightening in turning the searchlight on characters from the bottom "up": the mentally challenged friend and foil of the protagonist who can't get off graveyard shift even after acquiring decades of seniority; the "outsider" who takes the job for quick cash but who splurges on inessentials through credit cards; the main character who dreams of starting his own bakery but whose inertia diminishes his future, both emotionally and financially; the floor boss whose comically "romantic" episodes weave between an equally impotent job-related revenge; the supervisor whose plodding professionalism and career cautiousness is sympathetic to the reader yet overlooked and derided by workers both under and over his level, as well as his wife; the site manager who's caught between the dictates of the owners and Central Canadian bosses, and the workers set to strike; a director whose oily cynicism is part of his spiritual make-up, and not a job description. But as page-turning a story as Buday can tell, the beauty is in the details. The characters are humourously and dramatically idiosyncratic, but in addition, the description of local detail is gritty and aesthetically creative, and the set pieces are unforgettable in tone and execution (the graveyard shift foreman calmly looking up to a passing neighbour while trapped under his carport door is terrifically dry in its humour, yet simultaneously sad in its transformative suggestion). The ending of the novel is superb, and widens the contrast between the two friends at the story's heart.

2) Martin Amis, Money (1984). This was the fifth (and best) Amis novel I've read. Extravagantly creative and consistently vibrant, it's tighter than The Information, more mature than Success, more realized than the (at times) apocalyptic London Fields, and more coherent than the clever yet problematically structured Time's Arrow. Plenty of philosophical digressions, which in a novel I love, and here they're tied to the first-person obsessions, and make sense in the back-and-forth with the narrative. Too many hilarious characters to outline in a short review, and too many imaginative set pieces, but one stand out episode was the tennis match between the physically catastrophic John Self and the athletically efficient Fielding Goodney. Money is humour at its best: it works on its base entertainment level while also driving huge non-comedic daggers into the soft dough of hard-assed greed.

3) Grant Buday, Monday Night Man (1995). A collection of loosely-linked short stories, Buday created three unforgettable characters in the financially and socially challenged friends who gamble, whore, and drink their way through existential exasperation. This is courageous humour, wild and low, but there're also moments of heartbreaking pathos (the story set in the Patricia Hotel) and dramatic, even quiet, counterpoint. Buday never forces a laugh at the expense of the characters. Actions, no matter how bizarre and entertainment-oriented, have consequences, and it's a grim reminder that we can sympathize with those we initially dismiss or make fun of.

4) D. G. Jones, The Stream Exposed With All Its Stones (2010). This is a poetry Collected, though some poems from Jones' lengthy opus have been excised, either through editorial choice or authorial pruning. It doesn't surprise me that several Canadian postmodernists have applauded the poetry of Jones since one of his poetic obsessions is with the creative act itself. His concern for a wide-ranging aesthetic for and to nature, art, and thought is generous, and not solipsistic. A delightful contrast exists throughout Jones' career score in his unironic handling of heavyweight themes (sex, death) with a stylistically light touch. Though I often have a distaste for recurring tropes in a poet's particular volume, I actually thrill to repetitions in variations when adroitly handled. "Sun" and "snow" are two of those unassuming emblems. And, in "Little Night Journey", they're joined by other elements in a smorgasbord of suggestion. The poem has a curious propulsion, both reverie and kinesthetic awe, and is nuanced enough to reward multiple efforts and delights of unpacking and stratification. If that sounds a tad highfalutin', how 'bout: it'll haunt one with its dark fathoms. Poets, unfortunately, even the best, are often remembered, if at all, for several poems, perhaps just one. If fate favours Jones with that small but unchippable corner of granite, I hope "Little Night Journey" is the reason.

5) Thomas More, Utopia (1516). Beheaded because of his integrity, Thomas More's life reminds us, five Cs later, that power mixed with integrity is a dangerous brew. The consensus on his philosophical tract the past hundred years has swung to a supposed satirical meaning, yet influential views, still strong, side with a belief that More was sympathetic to the ideal society while knowing it could never happen (thus explaining the narrator's inconsistencies, once thought a defect in More's thought). It's wonderful that the work is still debated. My enjoyment increased when I noted those inconsistencies gathering: the "moral" strictures, e.g., on infidelity, divorce, and sloth were illuminating as a "meet the new boss, same as the old boss" match with certain politically-entrenched religious codes this particular year of our lord(s).

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