The best reads of 2014

Miriam Toews, weird science, a bird’s-eye view of the Great War and, of course, Rob Ford.

New looks at an old war, beings of supernatural beauty and power, democratic deficits and governance failure. And, of course, Rob Ford. Even without peering down the pipeline of shiny new titles, the rough outline of the book world in 2014 is already clear.

Toronto’s wayward mayor, whose only national rivals for international celebrity are astronaut Chris Hadfield and pop star Justin Bieber, was a fixture in print and electronic media in late 2013. Next year, Ford’s story will transition to publishing, beginning in early February with Crazy Town: The Rob Ford Story by Robyn Doolittle. She’s one of the two Toronto Star reporters who viewed Ford’s crack video, and who were called “maggots” and “liars” by the mayor for their stories. Aficionados of the Ford saga can pair Doolittle’s full-length account with Olivia Chow’s memoir, My Journey, which releases two weeks earlier. An NDP MP, Jack Layton’s widow and a former Toronto city councillor who inspires among the diehards of Ford Nation emotions identical to those Hillary Clinton inspires in the Tea Party, Chow is also the one political figure who consistently trounces Ford in early polling for next fall’s Toronto mayoralty race.

It’s surreal, actually, that Toronto’s municipal politics interest even Torontonians, and it’s unlikely that Ford books will choke bookstores, certainly not to the extent war books will. The First World War, the closest event Western civilization has to an official start date for modernity, began in 1914, and the centennial commemorations have already begun crowding shelves, the space conveniently cleared by a pause—now that John F. Kennedy has been in his grave for a full half-century—in 50th-anniversary reconstructions of iconic ’60s moments. (With one major exception, that is: the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, a moment dear to Boomers’ collective memory, has inspired more than one book.)

The Great War titles will tackle the familiar—the bloody stalemate in the trenches, the failed peace afterward—and the lesser known. One study that’s particularly liable to resonate in Canada is British historian Nick Lloyd’s Hundred Days, an account of the relatively brief war of movement that finally ended the slaughter. Canadian readers will be looking for due recognition of the contribution of our army, which took on a full quarter of the enemy forces aligned along the Western Front—and suffered 20 per cent of its combat casualties—in the final three months of the war.

Then there’s the evocative counterpoint in 100th-anniversary memorials provided by naturalist Joel Greenberg. Modern times have not just been about the industrial-scale annihilation of human life, as his A Feathered River Across the Sky details. Sept. 1, 2014, will mark the 100th anniversary of the death of Martha, the last passenger pigeon. Only a half-century before, a flock made up of an estimated three billion passenger pigeons filled the skies near Toronto for two days, members of a species that once comprised more than a quarter of this continent’s birdlife.

As always, science that is excitingly unsettled—allowing writers to run with experimental results that experts are still deliberating—will be prominent. In 2014, that means neuroscience and genetics. McGill University psychologist Daniel Levitin, author of the bestselling This is Your Brain on Music (2006), examines the intersection of the digital world and the human brain in The Organized Mind. He taps into the latest brain science to demonstrate how some people excel in keeping up with fast-paced change, and how the rest of us can climb out of chaos by following their methods. And in what will be among the most controversial books of the year, Nicholas Wade, who covers genetics for the New York Times, discusses ongoing human evolution in A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History. Wade argues that recent evolution can be seen not just in new physical traits—lactose tolerance, say—but in social habits: Thrift, peacefulness, literacy and numeracy have all been inculcated genetically.

Memoirs, including accounts from noted Canadians—Bruce Cockburn (Pacing the Cage) and Silken Laumann (Unsinkable)—and biographies (HRC: State Secrets and the Rebirth of Hillary Clinton; Gods and Kings: the Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano) will continue to be publishing mainstays. So, too, will the newer sub-genre of the family memoir, in which ordinary people write of their extraordinary situations, as Halifax-born Maria Mutch does in Know the Night, her story about a life dominated by her own insomnia, and by a child with both Down’s syndrome and severe autism.

But the year’s headline topic will derive from the continuing fallout from the financial crisis of 2008, now increasingly seen by many experts as a governance crisis. In The Myth of the Strong Leader: Political Leadership in the Modern Age, British political scientist Archie Brown assails top-down regimes of all sorts, while the subtitle to American economist William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor makes his opinion clear. Pulitzer-prize winning reporter Dean Starkman widens the institutional failure to include the modern media in The Watchdog That Didn’t Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism.

Speaking of governance, in Canada, as Michael Chong’s reform bill slowly moves its way (or fails to do so) through Parliament, readers can consider Alison Loat and Michael MacMillan’s Tragedy in the Commons: Former Members of Parliament Speak Out About Canada’s Failing Democracy, in which the authors analyze the 80 exit interviews they conducted with former MPs. And anyone who wants to bring the financial world down from the macro to the micro can examine Nikil Saval’s Cubed: A Secret History of the Workplace—at last count, 93 per cent of white-collar workers detested the cubicles in which 60 per cent of them work.

The most intriguing title of this sort, though, a book that seems to expand the list of failures from governments, banks and media to, well, all of us, is Philip Roscoe’s I Spend, Therefore I Am: How Economics Has Changed the Way We Think and Feel. Roscoe, who teaches at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has a doctorate in management but did his undergrad work in theology and medieval Arabic thinking. The eclectic background may explain his assertion that justification by economics is what allows us to set aside social and moral obligations in the pursuit of short-term self-interest. Everything from the financial crisis to environmental degradation has been made worse, he writes, by our submission to economics, a discipline “at war with the goods of life.”

For a change, then, fiction, far less susceptible to public concerns and to trends of any kind, offers far more cheerful tidings. The new year will see the cat set among the pigeons, as American authors are allowed for the first time to compete with the rest of the English-language literary world for the lucrative Man Booker Prize. The prospect has for years given rise to hand-wringing among the British chattering classes who feared that the Yanks would simply take it over. But those who thought the boost in prestige was worth the risk—the Booker will now be unassailable as the world’s supreme annual literary award—won the day. Perhaps some day, the prize will take a real chance and open itself up to short stories.

In 2014, those will still be basking in the afterglow of Alice Munro’s Nobel prize, garnering attention not seen since Hemingway’s heyday, from publicists, marketers and—publishers hope—readers. Bill Gaston, one of Canada’s masters of the form, has a new collection out (Juliet Was a Surprise), as does B.J. Novak, an Emmy Award-winning writer for NBC’s The Office, with One More Thing. And the themes and characters of young adult fiction will continue to bleed (often literally) into the pages of better-written adult fiction. The Book of Life, the final volume in Deborah Harkness’s All Souls trilogy featuring historian and witch Diana Bishop, and vampire scientist Matthew Clairmont, will spawn a mini-Dan Brown moment at its July arrival.

But while realism is far from making a comeback in commercial fiction, it’s not dead yet. Miriam Toews, who won the Governor General’s award in 2004 for her superb A Complicated Kindness, perennial Irish Booker favourite Colm Tóibín and Stephen Galloway, author of the bestselling The Celloist of Sarajevo (2008) all have new novels coming in 2014. And amid all the noise, the year will end on a particular grace note: The unfailingly humane and wise Marilynne Robinson, who has written too few novels in her 70 years, will release her fourth, Lila, in the fall. A good year by any definition.

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