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The Arthur Literary Review: A 2020 Holiday Listicle

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December 18, 2020
The Arthur Literary Review: A 2020 Holiday Listicle
Image courtesy of Maria Smirnova

Well, that was a strange year, wasn’t it? A general impression I get of what people are feeling this week is: relief. So many of our work and school obligations are coming to an end, and so we can all hopefully take a moment — pause — and approach our holiday tenures with some semblance of normalcy and peace… or, at least, with what normalcy that’s still accessible in the midst of this pandemic’s tail end. Every year, I take a commuter’s pilgrimage to Toronto where I raid used bookstores for the bulk of my holiday shopping. Any books that I end up taking home must look near totally mint, so that the people I gift them too don’t get wise to my money-grubbing, eco-friendly scheme. I compensate for this by only picking (what I think are) really excellent books, hoping that their quality will be an adequate smokescreen for their thrift. I did the same this year and I am sharing with you, the books that I chose. I describe what is interesting about each book, and some select attributes of the people that I’ve bought them for. If you possess one of the traits I describe, or if you have any friends who sound like my friends, I encourage you to pick up a copy of the corresponding book. Hopefully, this will serve as a helpful literary cheat-sheet for you or someone you care about. A year of unparalleled stress can be mitigated, if only slightly, with the right words.

How to Make a Slave and Other Essays, by Jerald Walker

Nonfiction — recommended for readers who are interested in ethnic and racial studies; readers who should really know more about ethnic and racial studies; readers who simply like when creative writing meets a devastating essay form.

This essay collection, released in November from Mad Creek Books, is a viciously creative indexing of identity, emotion, and where they intersect. While the prospect of reading yet more essays in one’s spare time might strike the average Trent student as, well, really against the whole point of their winter holiday, I will argue that Walker’s essays are so well written and narratively smooth that most readers will forget they’re reading nonfiction at all. (This argument applies to the listicle’s various other nonfiction selections, as well.) The topics that Walker has chosen to write about slot perfectly into our popular culture, yet he speaks from a place of age and wisdom that precedes his topic’s vogueishness. At the moment of reading, the reader is deep in Walker’s mind, closely examining his memories and experiences. In his essay “Before Grief,” Walker chronicles what the disintegration of Michael Jackson’s legacy has meant to his generation. Walker describes warm memories of how he and his siblings would crowd around The Jackson 5ive cartoon when it first aired on television, eager to see children who looked like their family appearing on a television station that hitherto only depicted white families and white children. The essay’s tone is one of nostalgia, yet Walker’s conclusion questions how real all that magic was, after all. Nearly every text in this collection provides a similarly nuanced meditation on culture and racial identity in America. 

This is really essential nonfiction reading for 2020 — don’t miss out.

Shuggie Bain, by Douglas Stuart

Fiction — recommended for readers who enjoy stories about youth and growing up; readers who like straightforward or traditional novels; readers who are drawn to dramatic and often depressing stories; readers who don’t mind when their tears stain the page they’re reading.

This Scotsman’s debut novel — which, just last month, has won the 2020 Booker Prize — is a devastating 400ish pages to get through. While reading it, I was often reminded of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life — both novels are about childhood loss and trauma as described in intimate, unsettling detail, yet are written in such an elegant and tender way that a reader just can’t help but continue, page by page, devastated. (I might, however, claim that Yanagihara’s prose style is even more luscious and wonderful than Stuart’s: so, if you’ve never read A Little Life, you might want to add that to your cart as well.) Each sentence in Shuggie Bain simply unravels, delicately unfurling inside the reader’s mind. What enhances and complicates each sentence is Stuart’s narrative content, which comprises the harrowingly honest portrayal of the life of an impoverished youth. The story is about Shuggie, a young boy who grows up on the south side of 1980’s Glasgow, Scotland, who eventually must take care of his depressed, alcoholic mother. There is something so natural about how Stuart tells this story. Somewhere between the words being chosen and the somberness (or occasional humour) that each page is penned with, a reality is being conveyed with unparalleled clarity. Readers will be able to imagine every character, every voice, every dingy room wherein natural moments of pain and redemption occur. This may not always result in a comfortable reading experience (consider this a soft trigger warning), but it will result in something beautiful enough to be worth such discomfort.  

The Baudelaire Fractal, by Lisa Robertson

Poetic fiction — recommended for readers who describe themselves as romantics; readers who enjoy the blurring of fiction and nonfiction, of essay and poetry; readers who are (or aspire to be) authorities on art history.


The problem with prizes and awards for literature (or any artform, really) is that there’s never enough ribbons to go around for all the creative content that gets released in a given year. Case and point, here, being this debut novel from Canadian poet Lisa Robertson. This was one of the first books that I bought in 2020, and I’ve often found myself referring back to its many elegant passages throughout the year. Despite being published a month or so before COVID-19 swallowed the earth, The Baudelaire Fractal embodies an isolation emblematic of the year to come. Protagonist Hazel Brown’s particular isolation is one of a middle-age woman who is reflecting on her youth, where she traveled from Canada to London to Paris in order to answer her artistic calling, living a “she-dandy’s life.” At one point, Hazel wakes up to discover that she has unwittingly written the entire bibliography of the 19th century French poet Charles Baudelaire. Surreal occurrences like these are blended with poetic meditations about time and sex, as well as engaging analyses of art history. I admit that I groaned a little when I first read the book’s premise, imagining it to be some thinly-veiled knockoff of David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a similarly narrative investigation of philosophy and art. However, Lisa Robertson’s novel is not a knockoff — it is, in fact, a wonderfully original feminist text. My only fear, seeing as the literary award season totally overlooked the novel, is that not enough people will know it exists.

Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars., by Joyce Carol Oates

Fiction — recommended for readers who aren’t intimidated by very long novels; readers who love when prose reads like poetry; readers who enjoy David Foster Wallace, but don’t want others to know this fact.

So, this is a thick one. The title alone, which conveys astral swagger while quoting a Walt Whitman poem, should make it clear that readers are in for something vague yet beautiful. The novel is unfortunately timely for 2020, with the prologue’s inciting incident being the untimely death of John Earle McClaren — nickname “Whitey” — who slips into a coma and passes away shortly after pulling his car over and attempting to stop a pair of police officers from beating the bloodied and defenceless Azim Murthy to death by the side of the road. John dies in the first handful of paragraphs, but his presence is felt throughout the novel’s remaining 800 pages. It is a family tragedy, where readers must witness how the rest of John’s family mourns their circumstances. What offsets Oates’ incredibly heavy subject matter? Creativity. I’ve never read such a miserable book that is so enthusiastic about the way it tells its story. There are frequent digressions and dissections of encyclopedic proportions that remind readers why life is worth mourning the loss of in the first place.

Coventry, by Rachel Cusk

Nonfiction — recommended for readers who enjoy when books feel like they’re speaking to them; readers who prefer their books to be brimming with emotion; readers who hate driving.

This pick is cheating a bit, on my part. Coventry — a new collection of essays by the Canadian-born novelist — is not so new, having been released in 2019. Yet, I read it this year, and as far as I can tell not enough people have read it yet. So, it gets the listicle treatment. American novelist Jonathan Franzen once remarked that Rachel Cusk has taken “the method of self-conscious first-person testimony to a new level,” which sounds like really sweeping and unrealistic praise. That is, until you read something by Cusk, who has the uncanny ability to always feel like she’s revealing too much about herself, even in her fiction. This is a compliment, as nothing else feels quite the same as her brand of writing. Each essay’s topic, here, is outwardly mundane — topics include: coastal British traffic jams; airport interactions; changing room etiquette; parental cold-shoulders — however, each subject, when combined with Cusk’s intimate and confessionary tendencies, becomes something terribly revealing, where every fleeting thought you’ve ever had is suddenly there on the page and is being stripped down to its bottommost components, at which point Cusk is only just getting started. While there are some literary essays in Coventry, I would sooner refer to the collection as an example of soft philosophy, as opposed to arts and letters. Nearly every sentence is anecdotal or observational, yet it never feels like you’re reading something superfluous. Cusk is insightful, and we should all be thankful that she takes the time to share her thoughts with us. 

In the Dream House: a memoir, by Carmen Maria Machado

Creative nonfiction — recommended for readers who are trying to recover from an abusive relationship, who need to know that they are not crazy or alone in what they’ve experienced; readers who enjoy reading second-person point of view narration; readers who don’t really think of themselves as enjoying memoirs. 

I’m cheating again, here. Who will stop me? This is another 2019 nonfiction release. It is getting the listicle treatment, also, because I believe it was the best book to be released last year. Most of the chapters recount the harrowing story of an abusive lesbian relationship that Machado found herself in, written from the second-person point of view, where readers will understand more thoroughly what it is like to be berated by an abusive partner. One of these memoir chapters is even written as a choose-your-own-adventure story, where, if you keep following the “turn to page [x]” prompts, you’ll be led in an infinite circle, where the abusive partner is described as physically/verbally punishing the second-person “you” in extremely traumatic ways. But, if you read the pages linearly, you’ll come across entries that say things like “You shouldn’t be here, but it’s okay. It’s a dream. She can’t find you here. In a minute you’re going to wake up, and everything is going to seem like it’s the same but it’s not. There’s a way out. Are you listening to me? You can’t forget when you wake up. You can’t—” before the voice is abruptly cut off.

In addition to the chapters that detail Machado’s abusive relationship, there are other chapters that contain a smattering of mini essays, all of which roughly examine LGBTQ+ issues with respect to American culture. One memorable example is the chapter “Dream House as Queer Villainy”, which confronts the film and television history of villains being molded as “effete ne’er-do-wells (Scar, Jafar), sinister drag queens (Ursula, Cruella de Vil), and constipated, man-hating power dykes (Lady Tremaine, Maleficent).” The essay is not kind to Disney. Yet — Machado contends — society can interpret these characters any way that it wants to, including very poor interpretations, like Christian-Conservatives who read the characters as proof-of-concept as to why the LGBTQ community is (somehow) evil and should be shunned. But, the collective interpretation does not have to be such a baselessly negative one. We could, instead, acknowledge that these characters, within these stories, are their own. That they have humanity. Machado insists that they “can be a complete cast unto themselves. Let them have agency.” All of this, together, amounts to a symphonically clever example of nonfiction. Nobody writes like Machado.

Antkind, by Charlie Kaufman

Experimental fiction — recommended for readers who love avant-garde cinema; readers who prefer to follow protagonists who are outsiders; readers who cosplay as The Riddler in their spare time; any dads who giddily repeat the name “Malkovich” at family dinners, then privately laugh to themselves. 

If, earlier this year, you watched the Netflix original movie I’m Thinking of Ending Things (which was adapted and directed by Charlie Kaufman) and thought “I don’t believe I’ve ever wasted my time in a worse way than I did when I watched that loathsome, boring movie,” then I doubt this novel will be for you. If you, inversely, watched it and thought “You know, I could really use some more of that in my life,” then this book may, also, not be for you. I don’t, in fact, know who Antkind is for. I would attempt to describe its plot, but I can’t imagine many people would find the description helpful. Any pretense that the novel displays towards narrative linearity or normalcy seems to exist only for Kaufman to, moments later, rip the rug out from under his reader. It’s kind of a mess of a book (am I doing a good job of recommending it yet?), however I can also confidently say that I’ve never read anything quite like it. It is absurd and surreal and navel-gazing and also funny, yet can sometimes exhaust readers with its barrage of references, its innumerable moments of strangeness and dejection. 

Antkind feels like what a novel cowritten by Franz Kafka and Woody Allen might look like. If that combination appeals to you, then this book will be enjoyable like none other.

Dangerous Laughter, by Steven Millhauser

Short fiction — recommended for readers who love campfire stories; readers who want to be scared, but not too scared; readers who don’t have time to consume entire novels.

This recommendation was originally going to belong to Stephen King, whose Skeleton Crew short story collection I just finished reading a few days ago. I don’t love King’s writing, yet I keep coming back to it. I feel like one of the kids in Stand by Me, stuck fast to my seat as I’m being orated to, riveted by Gordie’s campfire stories. King is certainly the master of kitsch over quality, where, even when his prose is lacking or his characters are too scummy to identify with, you can count on the whole thing being told with a spooky-story aesthetic that makes it incredibly fun to read anyway. Sometimes, he might even deliver an authentic scare or two. Yet, I feel like his writing is too inconsistent (and problematic) to widely endorse. What I can point to as being consistent and completely worth recommending is any short fiction collection by Steven Millhauser (a Pulitzer Prize winning author), specifically his 2008 collection Dangerous Laughter. Millhauser writes stories with a similar aesthetic to King, in that they are vaguely ominous and have a great orated feel to them and are almost always overtly American, often taking place in the Midwest and/or some nameless suburbia. Millhauser also indulges in metaphors, crafting stories that are delightfully surreal yet avoid breaking any of their own internal logic. Beyond that, his stories are just so much fun: one is a cartoon about a cat and mouse (think Tom & Jerry, or Itchy & Scratchy), and it really does feel like you’re reading a cartoon; one is about a town that sits right beside its identical double, where people in one town visit the other to see perfect recreations of all their neighbours’ houses, hoping to spy some gossip in their twin’s refrigerator; one is about class struggle, yet is written like a Babylonian myth; one is about a girl who lives in complete darkness and a boy who isn’t sure that the girl exists at all. 

In the name of winding down and relaxing this holiday season, these books are foolproof, begging to be bought and curled up with alongside heaps of herbal tea and comfort food. Pick one up, snuggle, exhale, and enjoy.















Teaching Awards by The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Trent
Arthur News School of Fish
Sponsored
Teaching Awards by The Centre for Teaching and Learning at Trent
Arthur News School of Fish

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