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Saturday, 17 December 2016

Staff Picks 2016: Saelan

This is my third year making a best-of list at D&Q and every year I have the same complaint about how grad school is keeping me from enjoying the embarrassment of riches that the store provides: I don't get to read for pleasure nearly as much as I'd like! I did find time to enjoy a few things, mostly comics and things related to my studies (ie. books about art), plus cookbooks and kids books, because I'm the domesticated father of a two year-old. As you'll see below, the bulk of my fiction reading was actually catch-up from previous years.

WHAT I ENJOYED THE MOST


The Neapolitan Novels - Elena Ferrante (Europa)

I was late to the party on this, but I finally dove in to Elena Ferrante this Summer, and this series completely consumed my life for about a month. Ferrante's writing is every bit as absorbing as everyone had said, though what surprised me was what an exceptional life story it recounts. Ferrante has been repeatedly praised for her depiction of female friendship, but the relationship between Lina and Lenu is anything but ordinary. Unlike, say, Karl Ove Knausgaard's books, Ferrante's quasi-autofiction is thrillingly paced and packed with drama and incident -- plus it's set in tumultuous circumstances, indexing the ferment of Italian politics in the 60s and 70s. The series is particularly powerful as a record of the rise of feminism within a deeply sexist milieu: it is perhaps the most brutally frank (and, at the same time, incredibly sensitive) portrayal I've ever read of the myriad ways in which womens' lives have been and can be dominated by patriarchy.

OTHER NON-2016 I REALLY ENJOYED


 I Love Dick - Chis Kraus (Semiotexte) and The Argonauts - Maggie Nelson (Graywolf)

Two more essential books on female experience, by women, both of which were as good as I'd been led to believe. Kraus' book, in particular, was amazing to read. I've been familiar with her writing for years and had read other books and essays of hers, so finally reading I Love Dick felt both like re-reading and a revelation. It's the model for so much recent writing -- both in terms of autofiction in general and for women writing about their own lives, especially in the so-called "confessional" mode (a category which this books thoroughly deconstructs) -- that it felt familiar and startling at the same time. The Argonauts is a similar document: an essayistic memoir about gender and writing, self-fashioning, queer love, queer parenthood, and queer family-making.

ACTUALLY PUBLISHED IN 2016


Double Teenage - Joni Murphy (BookThug)

To my considerable embarrassment, I only finished one novel in 2016 that was actually published this year. Thankfully that book was Joni Murphy's excellent Double Teenage, a quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age story and the chronicle of a friendship between two young women, set in New Mexico, the Pacific Northwest, and Chicago. It seems 2016 was really the year of essayistic autofiction by women, for me. (Apologies to all those whose books I started and have yet to finish).

ART COMICS


Wendy's Revenge - Walter Scott (Koyama) and Hot or Not: 20th-century Male Artists - Jessica Campbell (Koyama)

Wendy's Revenge was, bar none, my most anticipated graphic novel of the year, and Walter Scott did not disappoint (also of note: the Wendy comics produced for this year's Montreal Biennial). Wendy's art world satire is perennially, painfully spot-on, though one of the most rewarding things about this new collection is watching Scott flesh out supporting characters like Wendy's indigenous best bud Winona and Screamo, the hard-partying gay nihilist with a secret sensitive side -- both of whom, along with Wendy herself, seem like fractured parts of Scott's own identity as a queer Mohawk artist. Now that Scott's back in art school, I can't wait to see Wendy take on MFA life! Jessica Campbell's Hot or Not is more of a one-liner, but it's a good joke.

Honourable mentions: The Artist - Anna Haifisch (Breakdown) and Jaakko Pallasvuo's Instagram.

OTHER COMICS


Mary Wept Over the Feet of Jesus - Chester Brown (D&Q), Laid Waste - Julia Gfrörer (Fantagraphics), and Mooncop - Tom Gauld (D&Q)

These three picks are biblical, medieval, and futuristic, respectively. Brown's exegesis on prostitution in the Old Testament is unorthodox, but masterfully rendered. Gfrörer's beautifully grim tale of desperate love amidst the Black Plague is a timely reminder that many different points in history have all felt like the end of the world. And Tom Gauld's Mooncop dispenses with the whimsical gags of his better-known work for a sustained mood piece on loneliness, optimism, and companionship -- while retaining his trademark dry and quirky sense of humour.

NONFICTION ABOUT ART



Is Toronto Burning? Three Years in the Making (and Unmaking) of the Toronto Art Scene - Philip Monk (Black Dog), Social medium: artists writing, 2000-2015 - edited by Jennifer Liese (Paper Monument), and How to See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking About Art - David Salle (W.W. Norton)

Monk's book is unsurprisingly opinionated and necessarily biased, given that Monk himself was a key figure in the scene he documents, but it's still an essential document of a key period in Canadian art. The moment that Monk investigates has resonance not only across the country but also in terms of international contemporary art, as the 70s turned into the 80s. Paper Monument's anthology of artists' writings gathers an eclectic (and perhaps slightly uneven) selection of the best and most significant essays of the last decade-and-a-half, a number of which I hadn't read and others that are great to revisit. Finally, David Salle is an artist that I have never been particularly drawn to, but as a hot property of the 80s art world whose star dimmed considerably in recent decades, he has some intimate insights into the upper echelons of a particular era and a cantankerous, artist's-eye perspective on other artists that's refreshing and fascinating, even when I differ on his positions and opinions the majority of the time.

COOKBOOKS


Middle Eastern Vegetarian - Salma Hage (Phaidon) and Classic German Baking - Luisa Weiss (Ten Speed)

My wife is a vegetarian who loves Middle Eastern food, so Salma Hage's book was a no-brainer in our household, but it really is a beautiful book, packed with simple and delicious recipes. Meanwhile, Luisa Weiss' Classic German Baking took me back to my childhood and the treats baked by my beloved German Omi, whose cooking I've been trying to recreate in her memory since her passing earlier this year.

KIDS BOOKS



King Baby - Kate Beaton (Arthur A. Levine) and We Found a Hat -Jon Klassen (Candlewick)

Here's two books that my toddler and I could both agree on -- both follow-ups to other much-loved titles by the same authors. Kate Beaton's King Baby was perfect for our house, since it handily explains how babies become big kids (which are sometimes followed by new babies, as is the case for us) and We Found a Hat offers a benevolent conclusion to Jon Klassen's wonderful "Hat" series, in which two friends decide to do what's best for each other.

For more reading suggestions be sure to check out Top Ten of 2016 lists from the rest of the Librairie D&Q staff:
Alyssa + Ben + Daphné + Helen + Henrika + Julie + Lucie + Rebecca + Kate

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