Drawing on Maclean’s monthly book reviews over the last year, here are the 10 best works of fiction and non-fiction in 2017 as chosen by Brian Bethune, in no particular order.
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE HEALTH OF NATIONS
By Anthony McMichael
This is a book to inspire thoughts of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse—famine, plague, war and death—and how we rarely stop to realize that they ride on the winds of environmental change. It rains too little or too much, it’s too hot or it’s too cold, and customary ways of life can no longer be sustained. If it keeps up long enough, the situation isn’t just a bout of bad weather, it’s climate change. We and our ancestral species have been through it before—indeed, a changing climate has been the prime driver in human evolution ever since we came down from the trees over two million years ago in response to a cooler and dryer Africa. As climate-change skeptics like to point out, humans have been here before, even in terms of the rapidity of change: some 5,500 years ago, when the African monsoons started falling short of the Sahara—then a lake-dotted and human-filled oasis—it took only decades for the desert to arise.
But climate change has never been at the current planetary scale, involving so many people whose lives are dependent on fragile global supply lines, retorts author McMichael. The eminent Australian epidemiologist, who died in 2014 (the book was completed by his colleagues), sweeps through past history as a cautionary tale for those who think we will weather—with some discomfort, of course—what is on the near horizon. The more complex a society, the more it is predicated on environmental stability, McMichael argues, and the more at risk when experiencing rapid-fire change.
The four horsemen ride right through history’s records of climate-related upheavals that have precipitated starvation, disease, war and social collapse. The famous Medieval Warm Period, a three-century stretch of excellent agricultural conditions, underpinned European medieval civilization while wreaking harm elsewhere. When it ended in a period of equally bad conditions in the 14th century, Europe’s malnourished population was wide open to the Black Death, delivered to it by an explosion in Central Asia’s rodent population—sparked by the same climate developments. In 1998, McMichael soberly notes, Malaysia saw the world’s first documented cases of the deadly Nipah virus, picked up from pigs, which had acquired it from bats put on the move by extreme heat and habitat destruction.
McMichael is not a climate determinist: “human ingenuity and imagination may flourish as never before,” he writes, in—take your pick—hope or desperation. But reasoning our way out requires acceptance. Those who scoff at climatologists’ predictions should take a look at historians’ accounts.
LINCOLN IN THE BARDO
By George Saunders
Despite large parts of it being written in script form, this Dante-esque first novel from the American short story master poses major filmmaking challenges, including the fact that one of its main characters always appears nude and sports a prodigious, swollen member. As a result, perhaps, Saunders’s audiobook publisher has assembled a staggering who’s who from Hollywood and the arts to voice the novel’s cast of 166 characters, themselves representing, in status and diction, a symphonic swathe of 19th-century American society (though even the largest symphonies rarely have more than 120 players).
It’s set in 1862, on the night following the death, by typhoid fever, of Abraham Lincoln’s 11-year-old son, Willie. Like the shades that assemble around him, Willie is unaware that he’s stuck in a form of limbo (known, in Tibetan Buddhism, as the bardo). Believing the young “are not meant to tarry,” two among their ranks decide to help Willie get to a better place: Hans Vollman, who died without consummating his marriage to his young bride (hence his perpetual state of tumescence), and Roger Bevins III, who slit his wrists over unrequited love for a male schoolmate, and now manifests as a disembodied collection of eyes, noses and hands. Willie’s spiritual champions become further convinced of his specialness after Lincoln comes to the crypt to cradle his son’s dead body—a scene, apparently based on fact, poignantly rendered here by Saunders.
The Civil War being as yet in its infancy, and with many doubting his leadership abilities, Lincoln and the nation find themselves in another kind of limbo, one that personal tragedy has now put in stark relief. A spiritual chicken-egg scenario arises: until Lincoln can “release” his son, or Willie elects to depart, he remains hamstrung, unable to act.
Limbo and uncertainty, political and otherwise, likely won’t pose an imaginative stretch for most readers these days. Still, Saunders exploits and explores these notions in interesting, subtle ways, as when he provides pages of clashing eyewitness accounts of the moon’s appearance on the night of Willie’s death, or descriptions of Lincoln’s eye colour.
Saunders’ performance is virtuosic—few writers can commingle social satire with wrenching scenes of paternal devotion and fart jokes as he does. This won’t surprise his legion of fans, but it should reassure those who’d started to wonder if he was spinning his fictional wheels.
By Omar El Akkad
It’s the 22nd century, and cancer-stricken Benjamin Chestnut, one of the Miraculous Generation—as the children who were born during the Second American Civil War and survived to tell of it are known—is conscious of the irony of having lived long enough to die an ordinary death. He wants to relate the story of his beloved aunt Sarat, a Louisiana kindergartner when the new war between North and South began in 2074 and an entirely different being, both appalling and sympathetic, when it ended in 2093. It’s a compelling narrative, one matched—surpassed, actually—by El Akkad’s flawlessly executed backstory.
Any dystopian novel is read as both story and the author’s take on the present; this one, with its straight-line extrapolation, not just from now but from the first Civil War, will be evaluated for its history as well. American War—its title, as slowly becomes apparent, is beautifully apt—covers past and present very well indeed. In 2074, coastal America is drowning, the interior is filled with refugees, oil is banned and killer drones fill the sky. Their strikes are random and unprovoked: rebels have destroyed the base that once controlled the unmanned craft, and now no one on either side knows when or where they’ll strike.
Egyptian-born, Canadian-raised and now living in Portland, Ore., El Akkad is an award-winning journalist who has reported from Afghanistan. As his deft, almost magical realist touch with the drones shows, his imaginative sympathy with ordinary people caught up in asymmetrical warfare—particularly those on the terrorist-producing side—runs deep. That empathy fuels his Southerners, who accurately channel their ancestors, with both generations on the wrong side of history, practically as well as morally.
Slavery was a doomed economic system as well as an abomination, and a beyond-stubborn attachment to oil while the land is drowning from its effects is scarcely better. In 1864, Sherman came down on Georgia like the wolf on the fold; two centuries later, the Blue army—little changed from today’s U.S. military—rains overwhelming force upon the Reds. Yet the Confederacy fought the North—with all its technological, industrial and manpower advantages—with a tenacious, tribal bitterness. And so, too, do El Akkad’s Southerners, in a novel with intertwined themes: how war continues past all reason, past all sight of the original cause; and how a radicalized mass killer is made.
SOLITUDE: A SINGULAR LIFE IN A CROWDED WORLD
By Michael Harris
Lively and concise, Michael Harris’s new book, Solitude, is an offshoot, and at times a reiteration, of his previous one, The End of Absence, which pinpointed the Internet’s generational Rubicon (1985), then looked at what’s been lost since its crossing (Harris tends to use “absence” and “solitude” interchangeably).
Solitude is less a study of aloneness, whose benefits—the generation of fresh ideas, more meaningful connections with oneself and others—Harris readily extols, than an accounting of the insidious, ever-proliferating technologies that imperil its achievement. Glazed hours spent playing addictive games like Candy Crush might feel meditative, but the ludic loop state they induce (so-called because they cater, repetitiously, to our brain’s pleasure centres) quashes the possibility of daydreaming and thereby true solitude. These games are, Harris argues “an invasive species, dominating the ground where solitude would otherwise grow.” Social media does something similar but with different bait—social approval instead of digital bonbons.
In a world where even our appliances beckon us online, exempting oneself has come to seem suspect, anti-social. Harris sees in the war on solitude a threat to individuality itself, and gives over one of the book’s sections to showing how the Internet’s hive mentality homogenizes everything from personal style to the restaurants we choose to our physical navigation of the world. Even death, solitude’s last, inviolable frontier, is under assault: several Silicon Valley companies have made immortality their holy grail, but if you don’t make it to the ribbon cuttings, several others can ensure your digital presence after death.
Harris’s articulate, unpretentious style and well-curated examples (there’s a chapter on the solitudinous benefits of typing letters) offset the occasional treading of familiar ground, as do the book’s interviews and personal anecdotes.
Central to The End of Absence was Harris’s attempt to live offline for a month. Here, realizing that in 36 years he hasn’t spent more than 24 hours alone, he takes things geographically (if not temporally) further by embarking upon a contact- and tech-free week at the family cottage on B.C.’s Pender Island. That might strike you as slightly less than heroic, especially in comparison to the story that opens the book: Dr. Edith Bone mentally withstood seven years of solitary in a Hungarian prison in the ’50s. As someone barely over the Internet Rubicon himself, however, Harris is charmingly aware of his limitations. Baby steps.
THE SEVENTH FUNCTION OF LANGUAGE
By Laurent Binet
On March 26, 1980, literary theorist Roland Barthes perished, belatedly, from an encounter with the absurd. The prominent semiotician—who vies with Jean-Paul Sartre in the Anglo mind as the iconic French intellectual—died a month after being struck by a Parisian laundry van while returning from lunch with French presidential candidate François Mitterrand. Find the meaning, the sign and the signified, in that.
No problem, not for the extraordinarily talented Binet. In his satire, the title of which only makes sense when a character references linguist Roman Jakobson’s famous model of the six functions of language, Barthes is the victim of a plot. He had decoded the workings of language’s seventh function—the magical and spellbinding one, the true speech of command—and quite a few people want that knowledge buried or under their control.
The novel unfolds at a manic pace, like an intellectual’s version of a Keystone Kops episode. Soon there are bodies everywhere, many the work of poisoned umbrella-wielding Bulgarian secret agents; portraits, etched in acid, of historical figures from KGB chief Yuri Andropov to philosopher Michel Foucault; and two hapless main characters, investigating cop Jacques Bayard and Simon Herzog, the young professor Bayard conscripts as his interpreter after The Idiot’s Guide to Semiotics proves unhelpful. The comedic and thematic heart of the story, Bayard and Herzog share the same experiences but never see the same thing.
That narrative—a wildly inventive and often hilarious middle finger extended at the French intelligentsia’s adoration of all things abstract—is superb on its own, but Binet is barely getting warmed up. Fifty pages in, the omniscient third-person narration briefly turns personal. One character, bored and restless, decides to duck into a café, “to see if I’m there.” Another 90 pages and the first-person voice returns with a note of regret. Bayard and Herzog will never know Barthes’ version of the Mitterrand lunch, but that is no reason “we” shouldn’t travel in time: “That’s the virtue of a novel. It’s never too late.”
More and more, an initially whimsical but increasingly bloody-minded intelligence from outside the story and somehow separate from the author—essentially the seventh function itself in operation—starts to insert itself within the story. Binet’s ambition here is outsized, but his execution matches it.
THE BURNING GIRL
With its tween-girl protagonists, diaristic style, pop-culture references and thrillerish locales—including a haunted quarry and a decrepit mental asylum—Claire Messud’s The Burning Girl has, especially at its outset, all the hallmarks of well-written young-adult fiction, albeit extremely well-written YA fiction. Like her previous novel, The Woman Upstairs, it’s a subtly devastating portrayal of female connection and disconnection. But where in the latter the treachery was adult and personal, here it’s wrought by far more complex forces bound up with the girls’ coming of age.
Julia and Cassie, both only children who’ve grown up like sisters in a small Massachusetts town, are physical—and in some ways temperamental—opposites. Julia, the narrator, is “big-boned,” dark-haired, studious, while Cassie is white-haired, pale-skinned and, we’re often told, “bird-like.” Despite this outward-seeming delicacy, she’s fearless, a renegade. Living with her moody and devoutly Christian mother, Bev, a hospice nurse, Cassie has elevated her father, killed in a car crash when she was an infant, to guardian angel status. Julia’s dentist father and freelance-journalist mother (who likes to start sentences with “As a feminist . . . ”) are, in contrast, blatantly respectable.
After an intense pre-high school summer spent role-playing in an abandoned women’s asylum, the girls’ relationship shifts. A suddenly remote Cassie starts hanging with a rougher crowd as rumours about her behaviour fly. Julia, trying to disguise her hurt, wonders how much her ex-friend’s strange new home situation is a factor: Bev has plunged into a relationship with the truly creepy doctor who treated Cassie for a dog bite, then showed up at Bev’s Bible-study group.
Minor fissures in family, class, expectation and ability soon become amplified. In this, and in the girls’ changing dynamic, the novel favourably recalls both Zadie Smith’s recent Swing Time and Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. If, for Julia, looming adulthood feels inchoate, ominous—“Sometimes I felt that growing up and being a girl was about learning to be afraid. Not paranoid, exactly, but always alert and aware, like checking out the exits in the movie theatre”—it is more so for Cassie, whose beauty and charisma are no match for Julia’s less flashy advantages: “Without anybody saying so, I was being told that my path was the more valuable.”
A novel of tantalizing unpredictability and profound emotional intelligence, The Burning Girl is arguably Messud’s most brilliant outing to date.
A LEGACY OF SPIES
Legacy has always been an operative word for John le Carré, author of the 20th century’s most iconic spy novels. From personal betrayal to the inexorable decline of the British Empire, hints of the past illuminate present moral quandaries and (usually) expedient decisions. And never more so than here, where Peter Guillam—master spy George Smiley’s trusted young associate—acquires a backstory. Born in France in about 1932 to a Breton farmer’s daughter and an English father who later suffered a gruesome death at the hands of the Gestapo, Guillam was recruited to British Intelligence by Smiley himself in the mid-1950s. The will-you-join-us-like-your-father-before-you question, Guillam recalls, came as a warning: it’s vital work, the man who would become his surrogate father told him, “as long as one cares about the end, and not too much about the means.”
Now in his 80s and the last of his kind, Guillam has been hauled into interrogation over Windfall, an early 1960s op that killed British agent Alec Leamas and his civilian girlfriend, Liz Gold. Avenging furies are closing in. The children of the dead are clamouring for an open inquiry (and compensation); the British public—contemptuous of Cold War hypocrisy, forgetful of their own paranoia at the time, mistrustful of government spies and focused on the fate of individuals—is supportive; while the bureaucracy is determined to keep things tidy, even at the cost of trashing the reputations of those once honoured for their service to the state.
Wily as ever, Guillam plays every old-age card he can—he’s deaf, he can’t remember, he has to go to the bathroom every 10 minutes—but the interrogators are relentless and far more ruthless. They’re helped immeasurably by the fact Guillam never developed Smiley’s icy interior. Haunted for half a century by the fate of Leamas and Gold, Guillam is flooded by memories of events and of the same moral compromises that troubled a real-life young British spy of the era named David Cornwell, inspiring him to adopt a pseudonym and start writing as John le Carré.
Now 85 himself, and clearly tying up loose ends, le Carré has crafted a novel as compelling and relevant as any of his earlier works. By bringing together Smiley, his most popular character, and Leamas—whose story is told in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the 1963 novel critics judge his greatest—he’s made A Legacy of Spiesinto the legacy of le Carré.
By Jennifer Egan
Jennifer Egan’s career (including her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad) has been built, in part, on a thwarting of expectations. And now she has done so again, this time by writing a narratively conventional historical novel spanning the Depression to the late days of the Second World War. The emotional intelligence that underpins it is far from ordinary, however: Manhattan Beach ends up circumnavigating the globe, but its most impressive and expansive moments occur in the narrow wartime Brooklyn world that serves as its primary setting.
In its opening scene Anna Kerrigan, age 12, accompanies her father, Eddie, to the home of the charming mobster Dexter Styles for a mysterious meeting. Her vague memories of the pivotal day, which culminates in a frigid stroll along Manhattan Beach, will prove key when Anna re-encounters Dexter Styles five years after Eddie, a “bagman” for Irish union bosses, suddenly goes missing.
As the novel unfurls in its leisurely but riveting, real-time way, we’re forced to speculate: Was Eddie killed? Did he flee? Or was the burden of caring for Anna’s mute, severely crippled sister, Lydia, simply much too onerous?
As troops ship overseas in increasing numbers, Anna finds respite from long days spent helping her ex-chorus-girl mother care for Lydia in their cramped walkup, through the war-related work now being offered to women. A tedious but critical job measuring ship parts in the Naval Yard proves unfulfilling, so she seizes on the improbable notion of becoming a Navy diver and—through a combination of curiosity, persistence and dumb luck—eventually achieves her goal.
The novel’s first three-quarters are vivid and consuming. That said, Egan isn’t immune to the pitfalls of sharing the fruits of her copious research: the book feels overly informative in places. More problematically, its later parts suffer from an uncharacteristic reliance on coincidence and circle-closing as plot devices.
Egan follows a fine American tradition of using the sea as a symbol for transformation, but though an extended episode about the torpedoing of a merchant marine ship convinces in its details, its outcome is strained, credulity-wise.
Top-notch writing and meaty characters are Manhattan Beach’s saving grace. Anna is an outwardly good girl with an inner rebellious streak, and as small a thing as our anticipation of how, and when, her true nature will reveal itself stands as one of its many indelible pleasures.
WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWERBy Ta-Nehisi Coates
By May of 2008, Barack Obama’s run for the Democratic presidential nomination, once believed to be far-fetched, was snowballing into historical inevitability. At the same time, The Atlantic published “This Is How We Lost To the White Man,” an audacious essay on the conservatism of Bill Cosby, then known as a patron within the Black community and as “America’s Dad” throughout the country. The essay laid bare Cosby’s disingenuousness in laying blame for the community’s struggles at the feet of a lost generation, while deconstructing the white supremacist myth of black pathology. That essay was penned by Coates, then a freelance writer who reached for the rhetorical heights of James Baldwin while mired in poverty and personal failure off the page.
Nearly a decade later, Coates stands as the standard-bearer of skeptical black intellectualism. His 2015 book, the National Book Award-winning Between the World and Me, disarticulated the American mythos of equality. In his new book, Coates shifts from lecturer to griot, chronicling the eight-year decline of America’s moment of hope through his essays written for The Atlantic.
We Were Eight Years in Power is named for an excerpt of a speech made by Reconstruction-era congressman and civil rights advocate Thomas Miller, as a political resurgence of secessionists primed the country for the Jim Crow Era. Coates’ selected essays cover ground from Barack Obama’s conservative liberalism to the prison industry’s role in returning blacks to bondage, neatly tracing a parallel in which white America’s primordial fear of submission to black authority spurs its descent into Trump-era revanchism. Between chapters, Coates reflects on his growth as a writer and a father, from the ignominy of his academic and financial failures to his ascension as the intellectual successor to James Baldwin.
We Were Eight Years in Power is a brilliant reflection, and perhaps a hefty primer for the uninitiated. But there is something dated about it, even within the recently written chapter interludes. Coates sifts through the pantheon of Black thinkers, and the ideologies of generations past, yet there’s hardly a thought spared on the modern revolutionaries of the Black Lives Matter era. America’s moment of hope may have passed, but something far more potent has risen in its place; that remains the unwritten epilogue to Coates’ American tragedy.
BOOKSHOPS: A CULTURAL HISTORYJorge Carrión
Readers in general love bookshops, but as this meandering and sublimely entrancing essay demonstrates, it’s doubtful anyone’s devotion has ever exceeded Carrión’s. He’s travelled through six continents to visit them—and like few other first-time arrivals in Australia, he makes a Sydney bookstore his initial stop. He knows the shops’ individual histories and associated authors, which one evokes a Stefan Zweig story or a Gabriel Garcia Márquez novel. He realizes they all bring to mind Jorge Luis Borges, the poet of text, who once declared “the chief event in my life [was] my father’s library.”
Carrión is brilliant on the variable role of the bookshop as a cultural icon. The North American store is the most anodyne, carrying a primarily commercial aura. The British experience is, well, uniquely British, drenched in Dickensian nostalgia. Carrión likes to tell stories about William Foyle, the emblematic English bookseller: his offer to buy, naturally at a bargain rate, all those books the Nazis were inexplicably burning (they turned him down), or covering the rooftop of his London store with copies of Mein Kampf during the Blitz in hopes of protecting his four million volumes. But in Southern Europe and Latin America—the book worlds with which Carrión, a Barcelona professor and author, is most intimate—the idea of the bookshop is inextricable from the notion of resistance to repressive governments.
Despite the differences, there is a commonality everywhere to book lovers’ relationships with bookshops, Carrión argues, even in the Beijing store where he found books banned by the Communist government. Libraries, almost always public institutions, inspire awe and respect, but bookshops—private and commercial, frequently failing and often on the move—somehow create a more intimate bond. For centuries, they’ve been a place of connection between writers and readers, a realm the brave new world of digital text and drone delivery has yet to replace, and their contemporary dwindling adds a gloss of elegy to Carrión’s paean.
Yet his Borgesian book—it can be opened at any point and read forward, or backwards for that matter—is not at all sad. To read is to travel in time and space, and to travel from bookshop to bookshop is an ecstatic experience for Carrión, a joy he conveys page after page.