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Here, finally, is the second installation of the books I had the most fun reading this year. These books were a blast. You should read them.

George and Weedon Grossmith – The Diary of a Nobody (Oxford): A friend gave this to me the last time I was in Scotland. I was so enchanted by its quiet charm and gentle social satire that I read it in a single sitting. The suburban Englishman’s diary entries of daily routines in Victorian England are full of slapstick and social faux-pas. I thought it was absolutely hysterical.

Kevin Barry – The City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape): Great read. The west Irish accent really comes through here in the speech patterns. There are wonderful turns of phrase, and a Burgess-like linguistic invention. I love Barry’s language, and the non-tech vision of the future gives the story an oddly workable hybrid of old west/1920s mobster feeling. The characterization could use some work, and the plot seems to lose steam, but all in all it was a very refreshing read. This is a must-read just for the incredible inventiveness of the language.

Tiffany Murray – Diamond Star Halo (Portobello): Tiffany Murray has an excellent ear for storytelling language. Here, she tells the story of the Llewellyn family who run a recording studio in rural Wales. The story follows the family from the 1970’s through to the 1990s. I especially enjoyed the character of Nana, and the back-story of Halo’s parents, which contains wonderful imagery and is emotionally pitch-perfect. There is a pseudo-taboo broken in the latter part of the novel that I wasn’t terribly smitten with, but it is a small flaw easily over-looked in light of the sheer joy to be found in the language, and the overwhelming charm of so many of the characters. Also, two of the best literary grandmothers EVER live within the pages of this book.

Robin Sloan – Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux): Sloan’s fast-paced romp through bookshops, secret societies, and the world of high-tech gadgetry is an ode to friendship and a recognition that perhaps the tech world and the book world aren’t really as distant from one another in their principles as we have been made to believe. This one’s a bit slick, and not as “bookish” as I might have liked, but it made me think about my own book vs. tech assumptions a little more carefully. It’s a light, quick read, and very timely.

Patrick DeWitt – The Sisters Brothers (Ecco): Okay, this is a bit of a cheat because I technically read it last year, but it’s now available in paperback and was so entertaining that it deserves a spot on this list. If you haven’t read Patrick DeWitt’s dark and hilarious tale of two assassin brothers, Charlie and Eli Sisters, you have been missing out. It’s full of murder, gold, sibling rivalry, and a desperate need just to be loved. Fantastic!

 

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Continuing the holiday reads recommendations, here are five of my favourite short reads of the year – two short story collections and three novellas. All deal with rather dark subject matter and are fantastic reads.

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Marcel Aymé – The Man Who Walked Through Walls (Pushkin Press): This collection of stories is absolutely brilliant. It belongs alongside the works of Borges, Kafka, Gogol, and Cortázar. The stories combine surrealism and biting social satire. Among the denizens you will find in these pages: a man who discovers he suddenly has the ability to walk through walls, a woman who can replicate herself infinitely, young boys dreaming of seven league boots, governments that can legislate leaps forward and backward in time.

Lucy Wood – Diving Belles (Mariner Books): These contemporary tales are drenched in Cornish folklore, and range from the charming to the downright unsettling. Most of the stories are wonderfully dark and incredibly original. For a debut collection of stories, this is rather masterful. If you’re a fan of Panos Karnezis or Karen Russell, these stories will be right up your street. They skillfully blend the fantastic with gritty realism, and are incredibly evocative of place – the wilds of Cornwall and the salt-sea air of its coastline.

Denis Johnson – Train Dreams (Picador): Denis Johnson’s latest novella is entirely deserving of all the praise heaped upon it, and in all honesty, should have taken the Pulitzer this year. Concentrated, evocative, and moving, the novella contains all of the mythology of the American northwest in its slim binding and at its core stands Robert Grainier, the hero figure – hardworking, taciturn, and touched by tragedy. Johnson weaves incredibly intense episodes from Grainier’s life into a tapestry of the history of the American West. Wonderful single-sitting read.

Chico Buarque – Spilt Milk (Grove Press): Eulálio Montenegro d’Assumpção – descendant of Portuguese nobility, former weapons dealer, great-great-grandfather of a Brazilian drug dealer – lies in a hospital bed in his one-hundredth year of life and remembers. In his old age and infirmity, his stories blend and blur, weaving together past and present through images, emotions, and associations in a rich tapestry of national and family history. The short novel was awarded two of Brazil’s leading literary prizes when it was originally published in Portuguese in 2009. Buarque is well-known as a musician in Brazil, and his prose has a rhythmic, musical quality to it that carries the reader forward effortlessly.

Max Frisch – Man in the Holocene (Dalkey Archive Press): This was my first experience reading Max Frisch, and it definitely won’t be the last. The narrative is interspersed with notes and clippings from the books in the widower Geiser’s house in a Swiss valley. Outside, an epic rainstorm threatens to undermine the very solidity of the landscape with landslides and rockfalls. Inside, Geiser’s mind is undermined by his inability to recollect things he once knew, and he obsessively writes down facts on slips of paper or clips paragraphs out of his books and fastens them to the walls of his house. The narrative is claustrophobic and perfectly suited to its subject matter: an isolated man suffering the indignities of age and senility and trying to find meaning.

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I have noticed a pattern in my reading material of late. Three of the novels I finished over the summer have as their protagonists three very quirky single women.

Alexis M. Smith’s charming and quiet novel Glaciers (Tin House, 2012) gives us a single day in the life of a hipster heroine, Isabel, who works in a Portland library repairing damaged books, recalls with nostalgia a childhood in Alaska, shops at thrift stores, and crushes on a former soldier colleague. The surreal Radio Iris by Anne-Marie Kinney (Two Dollar Radio, 2012) features Iris, a loner who works in an office building for a mysterious and shifty boss (at a company whose purpose or product she cannot determine), and who feels drawn to a strange man in an office down the hall. Missy Marston’s The Love Monster (Vehicule Press, 2012) is a portrait of Margaret H. Atwood: senior editor at an insurance company, psoriasis sufferer, soon-to-be divorcee, best friends with a bottle of gin, and object of affection of an alien observer. No, not that Margaret Atwood. Yes, an actual alien.

While all three novels are tremendously different in tone (gently nostalgic, vaguely sinister, and darkly comedic), they all seem to address a fundamentally existential angst. All of these women are seeking fulfillment, meaning, and emotional connection. Unsurprisingly so, the project proves more difficult than advertised. In a refreshing twist, these are not the sad and silly women of Chick Lit who obsess over shopping, socializing, and snagging a man. Nor are they the glamorous women of Sex and the City, and for that I am grateful, for those women always made me feel like a failure at my own small life.

Smith, Kinney, and Marston imbue the quotidian with significance. They do not shy away from the loneliness, the isolation, or the confusion of their characters. They do not pathologize singlehood; nor do they pathologize solitude. They do not diminish the existential crises of their characters by solving those crises with shoe shopping or going for martinis with “the girls”. Their jobs aren’t glamorous; their love/sex lives aren’t fulfilling. There is no guarantee of Hollywood happy endings, and there are questions about what form any “happiness” might take.  Smith, Kinney, and Marston look the sadness of the single girl right in the eye, and accept it for what it is – a path to self-awareness and self-acceptance, and an acknowledgement of the importance of the fleeting pleasures and human connections of this world. Isabel, Iris, and Margaret are recognizable and real, and will resonate with readers because the struggle for connection and for a meaningful life strikes a chord in our increasingly technologically connected, but ultimately emotionally disconnected, world. C.S. Lewis is purported to have said, “We read to know that we are not alone.” In these three female characters, I found kindred spirits.

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Nothing whets my appetite for travel quite like reading. Generally, my choice of travel destination has been influenced by my reading habits: Obsessed with Flann O’Brien and Celtic myth? Ireland, Scotland, Wales. Reading Jose Saramago and Fernando Pessoa? A pilgrimage to Portugal. Immersed in Bohumil Hrabal? Beat a path to Bohemia.

On occasion, I travel to regions whose literature is not readily available here in North America. The Dalkey Archive Press is working to remedy that problem. Through their new Best European Fiction anthology series (2010 and 2011 available) they provide access to authors from regions not often represented by English language publishers. Indeed, have you ever read anything by a Moldovan, a Montenegran, or a Cypriot? Neither have I. But I intend to remedy that as soon as my special order for these anthologies arrives at the bookshop.

As well, Dalkey Archive Press has embarked upon a new National Literature Series, giving us a sampling of longer works of literature. Currently, there are titles available in the Hebrew, Slovenian, and Catalan series. I feel a trip coming on.

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