Windows into Other Worlds: Gifts for the 2021 Holidays

To give a book is to give a window into another world. Here are a few gift ideas for the 2021 Holidays.

First, my crime fiction suggestion:

The Dark Remains by William McIlvanney and Ian Rankin, 2021. In The Dark Remains, Rankin completes an unfinished McIlvanney novel after his fellow Scotsman’s death. The story warms up slowly but is bubbling at the end. You can’t go wrong with Rankin, the King of Scottish Noir.

Bewilderment by Pulitzer-prize-winner Richard Powers, 2021. Bewilderment is set in the near-future, in a time of ecological collapse. Few adults are willing to confront the collapse. As with most dystopian fiction, there are didactic passages. However, the storyline eclipses them, as does Powers’ vision, which goes beyond the dystopic. A father and his son wrestle with the collapse, hoping that science will offer respite. It doesn’t. But the son’s love does.

Ring by André Alexis, 2021. Ring is a philosophical inquiry as much as a novel, which isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. If you have a literary fiction aficionado on your list, especially of 19th century fiction, Ring should please them. They’ll enter a contemplative world set in Toronto, a novel of manners à la Jane Austen or Leo Tolstoy.

No Reservations by Anthony Bourdain, 2007. In a previous post, I noted that Kitchen Confidential is my favourite Bourdain book. No Reservations runs a close second. No one would call Bourdain an earth-shattering writer yet he’s pensive as well as informative. This book delivers an entertaining combination of food and travel, two things many people miss these days.

It’s An Amusement Park

Anthony Bourdain had a cult-like following before he died (by suicide, in 2018). His following has not dissipated. He’s still revered by foodies, chefs, raconteurs, and travellers.

To my mind, Bourdain’s first food book is still his best: Kitchen Confidential (2000). It reveals his true self. His later books show a more polished version of the same man. Kitchen Confidential is as noteworthy today as it was two decades ago. In restaurants, the maitre d’, waitstaff, and bartenders are known as the front-of-the-house; the chefs, cooks, and dishwashers inhabit the back-of-the-house. Kitchen Confidential uncorks the back-of-the-house, a fiefdom known for foul language and Gulag-like labour.

Bourdain does not paint a pretty picture, but he does paint a true picture, a picture I happen to know. In my travelling days, I worked in 30+ restaurants, from L.A. to San Diego to Boston, from Perth to London to Toronto, in positions from waiter to line cook to sommelier. The great thing about the restaurant business is that you could land in a city and get a job in a day or two, often with few questions asked; you’d then work your way up the restaurant ladder, to a place with better food and/or money (usually both).

To Bourdain, good food was as much about cooking with honesty and craftmanship as exotic ingredients. He climbed his own ladder, eventually moving beyond kitchens to a career as a TV host and personality. He was a complex man, beloved for many things: his integrity, his enthusiasms, his no-bullshit persona. He was wired to go out on limbs, which fostered an I’ll-eat-anything attitude. To paraphrase Bourdain, your body’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.

Norwegian Morality Tales: Jo Nesbo

I’m late to the game. I started reading Jo Nesbo in 2021. He’s been an international bestseller for years. Maybe that’s why I avoided him: I thought he could be a prolific writer who churned out serviceable but boring novels.

Although Nesbo is certainly prolific, he’s anything but boring. He writes consistently intriguing crime novels, not to mention work in other genres, such as children’s literature.

So, what is it about Jo? In short, the settings and the characters. Take the Detective Harry Hole novels, centered in Oslo. In that series, Nesbo switches effortlessly between description — of both people and places — and action, between local colour and the colour red: blood and guts.

Some readers find that Nesbo overdoes the blood and guts. Admittedly, there’s never a shortage of corpses in his crime novels but I accept his version of the Norwegian underworld, overblown though it may be. As for Nesbo’s characters, Harry Hole is a flagship protagonist: dark, at times unlikeable, yet uncompromising and driven, a man with raging booze and drug habits encased in a solid ethical core. In a sense, Nesbo’s Hole novels are morality tales; good struggles against evil, not only within Hole himself but also outside of Hole, in the world at large.

If I have to pick a representative Harry Hole novel, it’s The Son (2014), which, on one level, is a retake of a central Christian myth — the Son trying to please the Father. To be expected with Nesbo, there’s a tsunami of blood. On the other hand, there’s a deep story here, a saga of good and evil full of pithy observations and a flood of emotional scenes.

Not a fan of blood and guts? Try a non-Harry-Hole novel like Midnight Sun (2015). Although certainly not a cozy mystery, to quote the LA Times, it’s a “softer, gentler Nesbo – as far as that goes.”

Jo Nesbo on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jo_Nesb%C3%B8

On Foot to Canterbury and Beyond

On Foot to Canterbury: A Son’s Pilgrimage by Ken Haigh, 2021. University of Alberta Press. Shortlisted for the 2021 Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Nonfiction.

Near the beginning of On Foot to Canterbury, author Ken Haigh poses a timeless question: Why do humans travel? Haigh lets Robert Louis Stevenson answer: “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more clearly; to come down off this feather-bed of civilization, and find the globe.”

On Foot to Canterbury is Haigh’s second travel book (following Under the Holy Lake: A Memoir of Eastern Bhutan). His new book recounts a walk from Winchester to Canterbury, England, hiking the Pilgrims’ Way. The narrative is immediately engaging; it’s both entertaining and thought-provoking. In addition to being a personal journey and a tribute to his father, On Foot to Canterbury is a cultural journey. It delves deeply into England’s past. Haigh deftly weaves together three main threads — travel memoir, English literature, and English history — producing a vibrant tapestry.

With his journey coming to an end, Haigh asks himself why humans go on pilgrimages. In his words, “there is a wonderful simplicity about a pilgrimage. Each morning you rise and put on the same clothes …. You break your fast, hoist your pack onto your shoulders, and hit the road.” As you walk, you ponder and philosophize. Haigh’s journey took him beyond his physical destination, to a Pilgrims’ Way of the mind and soul. On Foot to Canterbury did the same thing for me. 

The Gift of the Gab: Tana French

During the course of 2021, I discovered a fine Irish-American novelist: Tana French, who writes literary detective novels set in or near Dublin (the Dublin Murder Squad series).

French’s dialog delivers the magic elixir of story-telling: presence. She can capture the essence of a character with a line or two of craic (conversation). She has the gift of the gab; like Elmore Leonard, her dialog will hook you.

French’s latest book, The Searcher (2020), is a stand-alone novel featuring retired cop Cal Hooper, a sympatico Yank who has washed up in the west of Ireland, looking to leave the mean streets of Chicago behind. Hooper worked Missing Persons in Chicago; as luck would have it, he becomes embroiled in a local misper case.

The story unfolds in rural Ireland, sans a slew of high-octane car chases or bloody gun battles. However, there’s no lack of drama. If you like stories told with a slow burn, yet plenty of flareups along the way, The Searcher is for you. If you want a policier with forensics and hardened criminals, look for French’s Dublin novels.

Tana French on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tana_French