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Once again it’s the time of year when — if only in our minds — our pleasure-reading time expands. In 2022, of course, there’s the added factor of our reading locale options also having grown, to something like what they might have been in, say, 2019.
Here, then, are six recommendations. Continuing what has become an annual tradition in this space, these books range beyond the standard “beach read” remit. Give one or more of them a try, whether at a beach or your preferred equivalent, and you’re likely to rediscover the simple truth that a good read is a good read.
Time Zone J, Julie Doucet (Drawn & Quarterly, 144 pp, $34.95). When the massive career retrospective Dirty Plotte: The Complete Julie Doucet was published in 2018, it served as a valuable reminder both of Doucet’s pioneering status in comics culture and of how much her presence had been missed during an extended hiatus from long-form works. That break has emphatically ended with the appearance of this immersive revisiting of an impulsive romance from Doucet’s pre-fame youth. As is her custom, Doucet extends her compositions to the very edge of the page and far beyond. The images might appear riotous at a glance, but close attention to their deftly arranged, multi-layered detail is rewarded. A note at the beginning says: “This book was drawn from bottom to top. Please read accordingly.” This takes a bit of getting used to, but you sense that mild disorientation — the good kind, the kind that gets you seeing and thinking in fresh ways — is part of Doucet’s point.
Bystander, Mike Steeves (Book*hug Press, 253 pp, $23). The possessor of a restless, sharp, enquiring mind addressing the subject of his own deeply entrenched cynicism, apathy and inertia: it’s a premise with tantalizing potential. Steeves’s 2016 debut novel, Giving Up, evinced a gift for capturing the spiritual anomie of the contemporary white urban-dwelling North American. He repeats the feat here, but with the focus honed in on one man. Very well paid in his ill-defined executive job, Peter Simons is seemingly autonomous, enjoying the paradox of living a solitary life in the midst of a crowded city. But there’s an unsettling smell seeping in from the apartment next door, and we sense a reckoning is due. Steeves is endlessly quotable (“There’s nothing more satisfying than throwing money at a problem to make it go away”) but never glib. In Bystander, serious ideas and entertainment value are so intertwined as to be effectively one and the same. And there’s a bonus: read this book and you will never complain about your neighbours again.
Don’t Ask, Gina Roitman (Miroland/Guernica, 275 pp, $25). Hanna Baran, like many people her age, has found herself with the responsibility of caring for an aging parent. When we join the Montreal real-estate broker at the opening of Roitman’s historical thriller, her widowed mother Rokhl has disappeared, a possible suicide, having left a cryptic note saying only “I am not her.” Thus begins Hanna’s project of digging into the tangled history of her immigrant parents’ experience: why, for example, has her mother always been adamant that her daughter not go to Germany, not even on business? Roitman has addressed her own family’s connection to the Holocaust before, having published a memoir and co-produced the 2013 documentary My Mother, the Nazi Midwife and Me. Don’t Ask is her first novel, and she steps into the form with assurance. She knows when and how to deploy the details that speak volumes about a character (decades after escaping postwar, Europe Rokhl is still terrified by the sound of a siren) and how to place those details within a narrative that conveys the sweep of history. Holocaust fiction is a genre unto itself, but Roitman has found a new way into the subject, channeling its horror and ultimately offering a way forward.
All That Was Not Her, Todd Meyers, (Duke University Press, 221 pp, $24.95 US). McGill anthropology professor Meyers was a graduate student in Baltimore when he signed on as a researcher in a study of caregiving and chronic illness among impoverished families in that city. He ended up spending extensive time in the home of a beleaguered matriarch named Beverly, forming a complicated connection with her and her family over many years. Meyers’s conscience-driven reflections regarding the utility of his work, the shifting parameters of the researcher-interlocutor relationship, and the special challenges of communicating across gaps of class and race, form the heart of the book. He makes academic writing his leaping-off point for a deeply thoughtful, lyrically expressed ethical and philosophical enquiry. This is a book that can be slotted into many non-fiction categories, but don’t be put off: it is a unique work of literature.
A Convergence of Solitudes, Anita Anand (Book*hug Press, 361 pp, $23). We of a certain age have been known to wax nostalgic for a time when a band like Harmonium — uncommercial in any conventional sense — could sell in multiplatinum numbers and stake a place at the centre of popular culture. Anand’s new novel is a bracing reminder of that time, and not only because its cast includes a Harmonium-like band called Sensibilité. From the seed of a love-match marriage in Partition-era India, people from multiple cultures collide and converge amid the ferment of their new home’s late-20th century nationalist movement. It’s an ambitious act of narrative plate-spinning that Anand pulls off with aplomb. As the title’s echo of Hugh MacLennan hints, A Convergence of Solitudes presents a new way of looking at Quebec.
My Mother, My Translator, Jaspreet Singh (Véhicule, 280 pp, $22.95). As the memoir boom shows no sign of abating — and why should it? — finding variations on its conventions might appear challenging. Credit to Singh, then, for the compelling hook on which he hangs this book: not strictly his memoir but rather his and his mother’s, the result of a family pact whereby he gave her clearance to do a loose translation into Punjabi of one of his short stories if she promised to write about her life. She kept her end of the bargain, but was unable to finish the project. When she died 10 years ago, her son picked it up. The result is sui generis, a multifarious view into the post-Second World War Punjabi experience where formal innovation and sheer readability merge seamlessly.