Since we are in the waning days of 2022, I want to share comments about books that I have read this year. Not all of them are recently published. Consciously, I returned to some that I have long planned to read but did not. Others, as you will see, are new releases.
The Dark Remains, by Ian Rankin and William McIlvanney. Rankin is one of my favourite crime writers. His main character is John Rebus, a salty detective from Edinburgh, who is always on the edge, and sometimes beyond it, in his police practices. Ian Rankin completed this book for a fellow writer who died leaving it unfinished. The main character here is DI Laidlaw, another gritty detective, but from Glasgow, and he must solve the murder of a shady lawyer named Bobby Carter, who left behind a lot of enemies. This book is not as accomplished as Rankin’s solo efforts, but the good news is that he published a new book called A Heart Full of Headstones late in 2022. This time former detective John Rebus is in the dock, accused of a crime that could leave him in prison for the rest of his life. I have it on good intelligence that this may be one of my Christmas gifts.
Villa Air-Bel: World War II, Escape, and a House in Marseille, by Rosemary Sullivan. She tells the gripping and true story of a group of European intellectuals, most of them Jewish, who in the 1940s were on the run from the Nazis in wartime France. They hope to escape, usually through Spain, to North America, Palestine or elsewhere. The people trying to save them from arrest, deportation, and likely death, rented Villa Air-Bel, an abandoned mansion near Marseille. This is a deeply researched story filled with more suspense than you might find in a work of fiction.
The Fire and the Ashes: Rekindling Democratic Socialism, by Andrew Jackson, an economist who spent decades in the trenches with the labour movement, the NDP and progressive civil society organizations. I overlapped with him for a half dozen years at the Canadian Labour Congress. I was always impressed by how quickly he could examine something complex, let’s say a federal budget, and deliver a cogent and accessible description within a short time. The Fire and the Ashes combines memoir and analysis, a behind-the-scenes description of how the labour movement and the left have approached issues such as globalization and growing inequality.
Short Stories from a Political Life, by Bill Blaikie. He was an NDP member of Parliament representing Winnipeg from 1979 to 2008. This is a slender collection of reminiscences from Blaikie’s long career. He sent it to me, unannounced in March. He wrote it while he was wrestling with serious health issues. I wrote back to ask him how he was faring. He replied: “I am doing okay as long as I resist thinking about all the things I can no longer do as a result of the amputation and concentrate on what I can do. One of those things is writing.” Sadly, Bill died in September. He was an exceptional politician, and a good writer.
The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America, by Timothy Snyder. When Vladimir Putin sent the Russian military into Ukraine in February 2022, the invasion was accompanied by a parallel campaign of disinformation and propaganda. Putin and commentators on state-controlled media repeated the false claim that Ukraine and its government are a bed of Nazis. Snyder is a professor of history at Yale University and has written other critically acclaimed works such as Bloodlands and On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.
In The Road to Unfreedom he describes how it is Putin who employs a fascistic narrative about the Russian volk being the unblemished victims of Western nations, who he describes as degenerate sodomizers. He says it is they who pull the strings in Ukraine and threaten Russia, even though it is Russia which has invaded Ukraine. In Putin’s warped view, Ukraine is not a country and Ukrainians are not a people.
Snyder extends his analysis of right-wing ascendancy to the U.S. and other countries as well. He describes Russian interference in the 2016 election far more effectively than did the Mueller special counsel investigation. This is a book about recent history but also a warning about the march of authoritarianism.
Field Requiem, by Sheri Benning and Shimmers of Light, by Robert Currie. I bought these in the attractive McNally-Robinson bookstore in Saskatoon during a trip to visit family. Robert Currie was for many years a high school English teacher in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. During his long teaching career, he was always writing, producing volumes of fiction and poetry. He also served as the Poet Laureate of Saskatchewan. I was in a writers’ group with him in the 1970s and 1980s and have many of his books. But it is good to have his selected work in one volume. The poems often seem ordinary at first, but then they surprise you, as good poems do.
Sheri Benning is among a generation of poets succeeding writers like Currie. Her book Field Requiem is a lament for the loss of biodiversity and human community caused by industrial agriculture and its extractive mentality. This would appear to be a difficult topic to write poems about, but she does so powerfully and well.
The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien. Our grandson, who turned seven in early December, is keen on stories and books. Over many evenings and some afternoons, I read to him Tolkein’s classic fantasy novel The Hobbit, which was first published in 1937. We followed Bilbo Baggins, an imaginary and hairy little creature who claims to be a homebody, on his adventurous quest with a group of dwarves to regain treasure lost in time by their ancestors. The journey takes them into dark territory, and the treasure, when Bilbo and his team finally arrive, is guarded by a fierce dragon named Smaug. We are now reading the book again in the form of a wonderfully illustrated graphic novel (we called them comics when I was a child) adapted by a writer named Charles Dixon and illustrated by David Wenzel.
The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, by Northrop Frye. This is a book that I began, then stopped reading, on several occasions. It was just too dense. This year I stuck with it. Frye shows how the bible has had an enormous influence on Western art and literature, and upon everyone’s imagination, whether they realize it or not. He tells us, as should be obvious, that the bible is not a reliable source of history, although much of it is set in historical time and space. Rather, he examines the biblical text minutely, as creation myth, metaphor, and poetry. As the New York Times wrote in a review: “No one has set forth so clearly, so subtly, or with such cogent energy as Frye the literary aspect of our biblical heritage.”
We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958, by Fintan O’Toole. We were to travel in France September, and I planned to read books about art to prepare. But then I encountered O’Toole’s 600-page brick, and I could not put it down. He is a long-time columnist for the Irish Times and the author of at least eight other books. I read him most often as a contributor to The New York Review of Books. He is a first-person character is this book, but it is not so much a memoir as it is O’Toole’s looking over the shoulder of recent history as it occurs in Ireland. He chooses as a point of departure his birth in 1958 and he tells us, in detail, what has happened since then.
It is all there: Irish poverty and mass migration; corrupt politicians and business people; public men who keep mistresses but advocate loudly on behalf of the traditional family; bishops and clerics who forbid the use of birth control and access to abortion while fathering children despite their vows of celibacy; the random use of violence by the Ulster militias and the Irish Republican Army. O’Toole spares no one, but he also shows us how thoroughly Ireland has changed for the better. He is a master.
Van Gogh Up Close, by Cornelia Homburg, an independent art historian and curator, and several others collaborated on this handsome illustrated coffee table book to accompany a 2012 exhibit of Vincent Van Gogh at the National Gallery of Canada. The book contains essays describing Van Gogh’s up-close attention to detail and the artistic influences that shaped him. But even more valuable for me, the book reproduces many of his paintings in vibrant colour. I read it to prepare for a trip to France in which we would visit Van Gogh’s haunts in Provence, where he lived near the end of his turbulent life.
I also read The Yellow House: Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Nine Turbulent Weeks in Provence, by Martin Gayford. From October to December of 1888, the artist Paul Gauguin shared a yellow house in the Provencal city of Arles with Van Gogh, who hoped that this could be the beginning of an artists’ colony. The first weeks were productive for both men, who often painted together outdoors or in their house. But it did not end well. Van Gogh, who was mentally ill, sliced off a part of his ear before being committed to an asylum in the nearby village of St Remy.
Footfalls: Poems of the Camino, by Suzanne Doerge, and A Season in Lower Town, by David Blaikie. These two slim volumes were good reading while I traveled in France. Blaikie, a former journalist, has for many years also written poetry. His book describes a time when his marriage dissolved, and he wanted to lose himself. He took a cheap room in what some call Lowertown and others The Market in Ottawa. In his evenings and weekends away from work, he parked himself in the bars and alleyways populated by drinkers, brawlers, prostitutes, and cops. It was a rough but the poems, while alert to Blaikie’s surroundings, are often gentle and generous toward Lowertown’s denizens. Blaikie’s efforts were rewarded by his receiving the 2022 Don Gutteridge award for poetry.
In Footfalls: Poems of the Camino, Suzanne Doerge travels farther afield than Blaikie, to the Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage route which has existed in northern Spain since feudal times. Doerge is a liberation theology activist who spent years working in Latin America and she is fluent in Spanish. That formation colours her work although it is reflective rather than strident. The English writer John Brierly, whose guidebook for the Camino was indispensable when I walked it in 2014, has called Footfalls “a wonderfully fresh and honest reflection of life on the Camino.”
Sir Mackenzie Bowell: A Canadian Prime Minister Forgotten by History, by Barry Wilson. When he retired from a career in journalism several years ago, Barry Wilson was the longest serving member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery in Ottawa. In addition to writing for deadline, he was a history buff with a special interest in Canada’s prime ministers. He found it odd, and unacceptable, that one of them, Mackenzie Bowell, had never been the subject of book length treatment. Wilson set out to do just that and he produced a meticulously researched work about a newspaper editor and owner from Belleville, Ontario, who served in the House of Commons, and later in the Senate for about half a century. Ironically, although Bowell had long been ignored by historians, there have recently been other books in which he is featured. But Wilson got there first. He was a finalist for the 2022 Ottawa Book Award.
Three Hours in Paris, by Cara Black. Reading this fictional thriller was a holdover from our trip to France. In the plot, a female American sniper named Kate Rees was sent clandestinely into Paris to assassinate Adolph Hitler on his brief visit there. She failed at that in the early pages and the rest of the book describes how she attempted to escape back to England. Cara Black’s plot moves rapidly and draws you along. It is not textured and paced in the manner of a writer like John le Carré, but it is thrilling. An added attraction in the plot is Black’s liberal use of Paris landmarks as settings, complete with a map. Reading Black’s fiction is another way of becoming familiar with the city.
Northern Light: the Enduring Mystery of Tom Thomson and the Woman Who Loved Him, by Roy MacGregor. In 1917, artist Tom Thomson died at age 39 in the waters of Canoe Lake in Algonquin Park. Was it an accidental drowning, as the coroner said at the time, or foul play as some locals believed? Many writers and documentarists have spun the tale but could not be definitive. I have long wanted to read MacGregor’s book, first published in 2010. My curiosity was piqued further when I attended a play in 2021 called Tom Thomson & The Colours of Canada. It was created and produced by an Ottawa Valley based company called Stone Fence Theatre,
MacGregor grew up in Huntsville and he spent summers from childhood on within the nearby park. Winnie Trainor, Tom Thomson’s sweetheart and some say his fiancé, was well-known to MacGregor’s family. After Thomson’s death, she became increasingly eccentric as the years passed. MacGregor says early in his book that he had been researching it for his entire adult life. His familiarity with Tomson, Trainor, and Algonquin Park makes for a layered and riveting story. He comes to conclusions about Thomson’s death, based upon new forensic evidence that he initiated in his research. I do not want to ruin the suspense but I am pleased to have read the book at last.
My pile of books for 2023 is already growing, Yes, I usually read them in hard copy. In addition to A Heart Full of Headstones by Ian Rankin, I am ready to delve into two others. They are Shift Change: Scenes from Post-Industrial Revolution, by Stephen Dale. It looks at how his hometown of Hamilton is changing from a gritty steel town into something other. I am also planning to read Working for Canada: A Pilgrimage in Foreign Affairs from the New World Order to the Rise of Populism. It is a book that combines memoir and a recounting of Canadian foreign policy by retired diplomat Geoff White.
Leave a Reply