Books - 2018 in review

After a couple years of ploughing the fields of literary duds, I’m happy to proclaim that 2018 has been a hell of a good year for personal literature consumption. I read some of my favourite books this year, a few that would even register on my Top Ten list, and one that would even creep onto the Top 5. 

I’ve been reading voraciously over the last few years, devouring anything that sparks a glimmer of curiosity. Unfortunately, by reading anything that came in sight, without a proper screening method, I wasted time pursuing books I didn’t need to be reading. A book is a serious commitment of time, so this year I really only read titles strongly recommended by credible friends, confidants or admired public figures. I didn’t accept light recommendations only the type that the nominator would back up with a bullet. 

I read many good books this year. Here are the greats with a brief explanation: 

French Exit – Patrick DeWitt 

I tried very hard not to like Patrick DeWitt. His claim to fame is his novel The Sisters Brothers, a clever Western that feels like a lost Cohen Brothers script. A little too much like a Cohen Bros. script to be frank. People loved it, people really loved it. Maybe it was jealousy - or as my pal Bruce said, “Guy Vanderhaeghe writes considerably better Westerns with a fraction of the acclaim” – For whatever reason, I just didn’t want to get behind DeWitt. Upon further investigation, it certainly was jealousy. 

French Exit is a leap-up in quality. He earned his early success retroactively with this novel. It’s a joyous tragedy about a highly (un)likeable mother-son team who take the world by storm. I usually rebel against novels set in New York or Paris, or worse, both, but I just loved this story. The dialogue is whip smart and worth studying. It’s sincere and Malcom is such a wonderfully delightful character whom I would like so very much to befriend. 

My Brilliant Friend (Neopolitan Novels) – Elena Ferrante 

Ironically, my friend Dylan tried to get me to read this for years. An intense and detailed autobiography about female friendship. The first book of a four-part series about two young girls navigating meager life in Italy. The narrator has an uncanny ability to expose the complex motivations behind a young girl’s decisions and how they lead to loyalty, alliances and deception. I will absolutely read the rest of this series. I believe HBO just made this into a television mini-series. 

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole 

I’ve often considered Holden Caulfield, Frank Bascombe (The Sportswriter) and Harris (Harris and Me) to be some of my favourite literary characters. Ignatious J Reilly has pushed them all aside into obscurity. This is the funniest book I have ever read. I’ve never burst with laughter so many times while reading a book alone, in a public place. The book has a tragic back story and sadly is the only real book the author wrote and seems like the cause and effect of his suicide in his early thirties. It uses a classic comedy set-up of a protagonist who belongs in another era yet somehow perfectly captures the socio-economic framework of New Orleans. The city built a statue to honour this memorable but despicable character. 

 Boyhood Island (My Struggle: Book 3) – Karl Ove Knausgard 

A virtually unknown and completely unremarkable Norwegian author wrote an autobiography – the catch…it spans 6 volumes and over 6000 words. He can talk about an erection for 40 pages. It works because it’s normal, he’s an everyman writing in extreme detail with beautiful imagery about completely everyday events. This is part 3, supposedly the weakest in the series. It covers the early years of childhood. It completely captures the innocence, wonder, fears and sorrow of these strange times in our lives. Relatable to every single person who was once a child…so, everyone. 

Tribe – Sebastian Junger 

A short book of non-fiction from a war photographer about PTSD. New perspectives, fresh ideas, well researched and personal. He somehow brings it all together and offers amazing moral insight about how we live our lives. 

How To Make Love To A Negro Without Getting Tired – Dany Laferriere 

An accomplished Haitian refugee moves to Montreal and starts his life over with nothing. He deals with racism (surprise) but it’s more complex than that. Rich, white McGill women want to ___ him out of defiance and he want to ___ them to be closer to the American dream. Billed as fiction but based on interviews I’ve read, it’s quite the opposite. An immigration story with some originality and cajones. The title makes me uncomfortable to write and especially uncomfortable to say aloud. The title is also intriguing enough to have made me want to read this. A Canadian classic. 

St. Urbain’s Horseman – Mordecai Richler 

Mordecai Richler has become one of my most cherished Canadian favorites. This is a little deeper in his back catalogue, it’s a fantastic read but by no means his best, I would start with The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz or Barney’s Version to be introduced to his view of the slums of the-cold-water-flat-Jewish-Montreal. You can do a pretty extensive drinking-n-eating tour of Montreal through Mordecai’s favourite establishments. 

Gimme Refuge – Matt Love 

I found Matt Love’s book A Super Sunday In Newport on a Monday, in Portland. Coincidentally, I had just had a great Sunday in Newport the day before. I bought the book by divine intervention and it changed my life. Gimme Refuge is his memoir about leaving his day job as a teacher to become a writer. It’s dedicated, committed and at times, sad. Matt taught me about the importance of being a regional writer and being connected to where you are from. I plan to ask Matt to edit my next book. 

A Complicated Kindness – Miriam Toews 

Miriam Toews embraces her traditional Mennonite upbringing in Steinbach Manitoba the same way Mordecai Richler embraces his Jewish ghetto in Montreal, with one arm open and the other ready to use for protection. Toews writes about her heritage honestly. This is a heavy book about a heavy subject but she always avoids passing judgements and tells it in her own way. My favourite female author working today. 

Honourable Mentions: 

Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor E Frankl 

The Flinstones – Mark Russell/Steve Pugh 

Everything is Flammable – Gabrielle Bell 

Wytches - Scott Snyder