Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Ben McNally's Summer Reading Presentation

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Ben McNally's Summer Reading Presentation

By Hilary Fair

With all eyes trained on rolling news broadcasts and lingering unrest, it feels strange to ask Torontonians to turn their focus to the past tense — to concrete books, published months ago; to subjects as removed from civil politics as the monogamy patterns of song birds.

When I compiled the following list, according to the good taste and veteran insight of book vendor Ben McNally, “summer reading” tripped off the tongue — a decadent concept, true, but one we’d all indulge. It was early June, we were still waiting on the solstice and spending hours with the fictions (and non-fictions) of others seemed a beautiful use for the extra daylight hours.

This is not to say that these fictions (and non-fictions) pulse with any less value in moments where our own social narratives writhe in chaos and disappointment. Perhaps the current barrage of YouTube and Twitter and e-news ephemera actually compounds that value. We know that books are political vehicles — the sites of dialogue. We also know they are mental resting spaces — we can hide behind their spines and between their pages. I suspect the city needs both at present; I hope you find them embedded in the following (and in the following days).

Incidentally, at the time of writing this article the Ben McNally homepage featured a note from the owner — thanking both distant customers (for their concern) and the thousands of people that were in the street in front of the store this past weekend. It suffered no damage — an indication, perhaps, that narratives can, in fact, collide peacefully.

So, here it is: the goods compiled from Ben McNally's Summer Reading Presentation — a 45 minute performance during which Ben and his wife, Lynn Thompson, give one-minute plugs to their top 45 picks of the season. From the perspective of a voyeur (and someone that struggles with brevity), whittling complexity and nuance into compelling nutshells appears an outrageously exacting task. Their one-liners on the page, like their one-minute synopses, must whet reader appetite — enough to incite sales, on the spot or in retrospect. They rely on the playfully vague (statements like “It’s about this Internet thing”) and the provocative (“Will women fuel the transformation of Islam?”; “Or is the transformation of Islam an impossibility?”) — and the pair plants virtual reality pioneers and conflicting ideologies as must-reads. (The first refers to Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget; the second is a strategic play between Isobel Coleman’s Paradise Beneath Her Feet and Ayan Hirsi Ali’s Nomad.)

But it's tone more than phrasing that sells: these two spend many of their hours sifting through the piles of words published each year. Then they offer accounts of obsessive behaviours (David Grann’s The Devil and Sherlock Holmes), insomnia (Patricia Morrisroe’s Wide Awake), lone strolls through Alaska (Lynn Schooler’s Walking Home) and the “salacious” biography of Lesley Blanch (Anne Boston) — each with the same conviction. This is worth reading. Skepticism assuaged, the group (predominantly book club organizers and devoted cottage readers) lines up at the till.

Three Toronto-centric texts make the shortlist: Shawn Micallef’s widely covered Stroll and Goodfellow's Guidebook to Contemporary Architecture in Toronto, plus Rabindranath Maharaj’s fictional The Amazing Absorbing Boy (an account of the immigrant experience in Regent Park). For politicos, John Boyko’s non-fiction work, Bennett, offers a kinder portrait of our former Prime Minister while Justin Cronin’s fictional Passage examines military experiments gone awry. Lawrence Scanlan’s A Year of Living Generously documents the journalist’s month-long experiences inside twelve charities; Paul Harding’s Tinkers fictionalizes the death bed reflections of a septuagenarian. Patti Smith’s Just Kids is a memoir based on her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe; Martin Amis’ The Pregnant Widow is, apparently, sufficiently summed by the phrase “The swinging ‘70s.” For the word nerds, David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language examines the constant state of loss and renewal that binds our medium of speech. For art buffs: Elizabeth Kostova’s The Swan Thieves unites artist and psychiatrist in the treatment of “a man who attacked a painting,” and Katherine Govier’s The Ghost Brush questions the hand behind the work of a famous 19th-century artist in Japan.

Need more?

Non-Fiction:
Jon Turk, The Raven’s Gift
Robert McCrum, Globish
Ben Macintyre, Operation Mincemeat
Robert Love, The Great Oom
Nick Bunker, Making Haste from Babylon
Louann Brizendene, The Male Brain
Diana Beresford-Kroeger, The Global Forest
Bridget Stutchbury, The Bird Detective
Max Hastings, Did You Really Shoot the Television?

Fiction:
Steven Heighton, Every Lost Country
John Banville, The Infinities
Cathleen Schine, Three Weissmanns Of Westport
Eva Hornung, Dog Boy
Philip Pullman, Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
Lionel Shriver, So Much for That
William Boyd, Ordinary Thunderstorms
Stieg Larsson, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest
Peter Temple, Truth
Marcel Moring, In a Dark Wood
Andrea Levy, The Long Song
Ian McEwan, Solar
Paul Hoffman, Left Hand of God
Keith Thompson, Once a Spy
Helen Simonson, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
Kathleen Winter, Annabel


Hilary Fair is new to the city and is trying to find her footing in its literary community while curbing her nomadic tendencies. She’s a new grad from a Master of English program and thinks that she’s finally at the end of her “long road to Toronto.” The last eight years have taken her to various pockets of this province, through Europe a couple of times and to the west coast of Canada for a short stint as an islander. Hilary is pleased to be part of Open Book: Toronto and to have more opportunities to participate in the city’s literary events. She is working at various internships while she also works on getting brave and sharing her words.

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