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Come, Let Us Behold The Tyee’s 2023 Holiday Reads

Got a Grinch on your list? The Tyee has you covered with our end-of-year book picks.

Tyee Staff and Contributors 1 Dec 2023The Tyee

The yuletide season is upon us.

You may be the kind of person who swiftly swapped their Halloween treat stash for candy canes that are now proudly displayed on the kitchen counter (a kind elf did this in The Tyee’s downtown Vancouver office). You might be making travel arrangements during the worst time of year because your dedication to your loved ones exceeds how you feel when you approach the baggage carousel on Dec. 24 after you stagger off the tarmac. Or you might be a legendary winter-holiday hater, for reasons good and complicated.

After all, this time of year is tough, and it can surface complex, painful associations for many.

We’re keen to find a way to mark the end of the year and offer a bit of light in the darkness. If your love language is related to words of affirmation and giving gifts, you’ve come to the right place. Surprising no one, people at The Tyee take a lot of comfort in books.

Here are our end-of-year selections we’ve enjoyed this year, and which we think would make great gifts. You can find them at your favourite independent bookstore, online or in person.

If you’re looking for even more book ideas, check out our Summer Reads list from earlier this year — and leave your own recommendations in the comments below.

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For your cousin who is obsessed with the ocean's enduring mysteries:

The Deepest Map: The High-Stakes Race to Chart the World's Oceans
Laura Trethewey
(Goose Lane)

In her new book The Deepest Map, ocean journalist Laura Trethewey documents the race to map the seafloor — by the year 2030, if the ocean-mapping project Seabed 2030 has anything to do with it. “There’s just no way it’s going to happen,” Trethewey told The Tyee in a September interview. But that doesn’t mean that the race itself — and the scientific discoveries it’s prompting — doesn’t make for a rollicking read.

For your dear friend who simply understands:

the berry takes the shape of the bloom
andrea bennett
(Talonbooks)

There’s nothing like contemporary poetry to knock you off your feet. And we mean that seriously as enthusiastic readers, not just because we work with the author! Tyee senior editor andrea bennett’s the berry takes the shape of the bloom is a courageous, intimate collection that brings present day into searing focus, inviting the reader to consider how their earliest relationships shaped how they view themselves and relate to the people around them.

With clarity and grit, bennett offers an extended meditation on love, and what gets lost when a duty of care misses its intended destination. The result is a moving portrait of overcoming and survival, of finding one’s place in the world and making a family.

For anyone in your circle with a cellphone:

Pitfall: The Race to Mine the World’s Most Vulnerable Places
Christopher Pollon
(Greystone Books/David Suzuki Institute)

Christopher Pollon has expertly reported on mining for the likes of National Geographic, Vice and The Tyee. Now his deep research informs a fast-reading primer on the true cost some humans — and ecosystems — pay for the minerals and metals that fuel our middle-class way of life.

We’re addicted to digital connectivity and optimism gleams in the sleek shape of another EV humming by. But cellphones are full of rare earth elements, and vaunted “green technology” will supercharge the scouring of the planet. We can’t be climate-conscious citizens if we don’t better understand the hidden costs tied to our modern lifestyles. Start here.

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For the Christmas haters among you, including yourself:

Better Next Year: An Anthology of Christmas Epiphanies
Edited by JJ Lee
(Tidewater Press)

There’s catharsis in shared pain, and this is especially true around this time of year, when the wassailin’ ways of those around you can magnify your angst. An essay collection edited by Vancouver writer JJ Lee, Better Next Year is a welcome gift for anyone who has complicated associations with the yuletide season.

The collection features personal essays by poet Tolu Oloruntoba, non-fiction writer Sonja Larsen, novelist Joseph Kakwinokanasum and a range of other authors. A 10-year-old boy goes into the snowy woods of northern Alberta in search of the Christmas tree his mother can’t provide. A woman weeps at her steering wheel when a police officer asks if she’s living in her car after pulling her over for a traffic violation in downtown Vancouver. A middle-aged man leaves a residential treatment facility for a sober house in Surrey, and asks his partner if she’ll let him come home for the holidays. These real-life accounts of struggle and resolve resonate in ways that seasonal Hallmark movies can’t.

For those feeling inspired to dive into the beauty of life:

Accidental Blooms
Keiko Honda
(Caitlin Press)

Thirty-eight-year-old Keiko Honda was living a busy and successful life working as a cancer epidemiology scientist at Columbia University and caring for her toddler in New York City. But one Monday morning in 2006, everything completely changed course when she began to lose strength in both her legs and her right hand.

Honda soon discovered she had a rare neurological disorder that affects one to eight of every million in the United States. Accidental Blooms takes readers into Honda’s life before, during and after her diagnosis, including moving to Vancouver to seek a wheelchair-accessible home, and accidentally becoming an artist. Her memoir shows readers the blessings of humanity, motherhood, art practice and community involvement while showing how tragedy can teach us to see the world differently.

For your relative stuck in a rut:

Cocktail
Lisa Alward
(Biblioasis)

Lisa Alward grew up in Halifax in the 1960s and ’70s, worked in literary publishing in 1980s Toronto and started writing fiction at age 50. She now lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and her short fiction has won the Fiddlehead prize and the Peter Hinchcliffe Short Fiction Award, and has been published in numerous literary journals.

Cocktail, her first book, is a knockout collection of short stories that will stay with you long after you’ve finished reading. The stories are told with a wise attention to craft and the human condition that upends expectations, holding a mirror to the darkness, despair and desire that live in every person.

From a family trip to Disneyland to a long drive with an ex-husband and his new romantic interest, the characters in Cocktail are going places, but nothing is as it seems. The result is a beguiling collection that invites readers to meet themselves again, and to consider where they’ve journeyed alongside the people in the book.

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For the music-loving tween in your life:

Rise Up and Sing! Power, Protest, and Activism in Music
Andrea Warner
(Greystone Books)

Rise Up and Sing! is an introduction to social justice through the lens of musicians whose art is animated by activism. Louise Reimer’s delightful illustrations accompany Vancouver music journalist Andrea Warner’s joyful, big-hearted writing on Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Billie Eilish and more.

The book is organized around eight social justice issues: the climate emergency, Indigenous rights, civil rights, disability rights, 2SLGBTQIA+ rights, gender equality, the peace and antiwar movement and human rights. They are explored through the work of musicians who have been active in each realm, lighting a path for young teens to explore the big issues that shape their worlds.

For everyone gearing up to talk to their New Age, anti-vax aunt this holiday season:

Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World
Naomi Klein
(Penguin Random House)

Naomi Wolf, once known primarily for her feminism, somehow morphed into an outspoken COVID conspiracist during the pandemic, allying herself with far-right figures like Steve Bannon. Soon, people began confusing her online with Naomi Klein — a Canadian leftist known for her work on environmental causes, her sharp critiques of capitalism, her support for organized labour and her professorship at the University of British Columbia.

This confusion led Klein to take a deep dive into the conspiracy-ridden world in which Wolf had immersed herself, one where COVID saw New Age hippies strategizing with far-right propagandists to take aim at what they saw as government overreach — a sort of mirror world of similar but also radically different criticisms Klein herself has made of governmental opportunism during crises.

Doppelganger is well worth a read if you’ve found yourself at odds to understand just what is happening with conspiratorial thinking and political movements the past few years.

For your activist friend who demonstrates their love through harvesting and gardening:

Crushed Wild Mint
Jess Housty
(Nightwood Editions)

Tyee contributor Jess Housty’s highly anticipated first book is a beautiful, meditative collection of poetry. A B.C. bestseller, Crushed Wild Mint offers space for reflection and growth amidst imperfection, and encourages readers to mull over interconnectedness. Reflecting on the relationship between their poetry and their community work and work with the land, Housty told The Tyee, “Everything that I do, whether it’s writing and storytelling or community work or working with plants and growing food, all of that really feels like it’s part of the same whole.” The result is a book that is deeply rooted in Housty’s Heiltsuk homeland.

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For your cousin who always votes Green, some unexpected encouragement from the Old Red himself:

Marx in the Anthropocene: Towards the Idea of Degrowth Communism
Kohei Saito
(Cambridge University Press)

The Soviets didn’t read the right Karl Marx, or they wouldn’t have left Russia in such a mess (losing the Aral Sea as well as Chernobyl really does begin to look like carelessness). But Kohei Saito makes a strong case that Marx turned green in his old age and foresaw many of our present environmental problems. He might have some solutions.

For the poet in your life:

The All + Flesh
Brandi Bird
(House of Anansi)

“I write out of anger. It isn’t therapeutic for me, but maybe it will be for somebody else,” Brandi Bird recently told a crowd gathered for the Fraser Valley Writers Festival. Their debut poetry collection, The All + Flesh, feels forged in this fire. Bird’s clear, forceful voice stacks imagistic snippets in formally inventive poems and leaves the reader to intuit and feel through how they all fit together in an act of engaged, attentive witnessing. In person, Bird’s poems moved several members of their audience to tears.

For everyone who needs some hope for the future:

The Age of Insecurity: Coming Together as Things Fall Apart
Astra Taylor
(House of Anansi)

A book more relevant to this moment in time is difficult to imagine, but Astra Taylor has a way of situating her ideas in the great push and pull of human history so that they rear up and demand attention.

Published in tandem with the 2023 Massey Lectures, The Age of Insecurity combines memoir, cogent analysis and a visionary understanding of what the future could potentially hold, offering nothing less than a road map for a new paradigm. As things get harsher, darker and more unpredictable, Taylor conceives of another kind of future, one informed by caretaking, solidarity and hope. It is impossible not to be affected by her thoughtful and deeply examined ideas. Make everyone you know read this book and then unite to save the planet and ourselves.

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For anyone who has pursued a creative calling in the arts:

The Compassionate Imagination: How the Arts Are Central to a Functioning Democracy
Max Wyman
(Cormorant Books)

Max Wyman is a one-man Canadian institution. A writer, critic, occasional actor and longtime observer of the cultural community across the country, Wyman has fashioned his magnum opus in The Compassionate Imagination.

In envisioning a different kind of role for the arts, Imagination goes far beyond the gallery or the stage, pulling from multiple sources, including other models from around the globe that put Canadians’ paltry investment in culture to shame. More than a manifesto for a reckoning with how the arts are presented, taught and even conceived of in Canada, Imagination is a cri de coeur for the best stuff that humans are capable of.

A full embrace of the ideas that Wyman presents, both on a professional and on an amateur level, will create a culture in which compassion, beauty, generosity and kindness prevail. It can’t come soon enough.

For true crime junkies exploring the ethics of their obsession:

Not That Kind of Place
Michael Melgaard
(House of Anansi)

Michael Melgaard’s novel Not That Kind of Place is not true crime, of course, but it offers a thoughtful and complicated send-up of the genre. The story begins in 1997, when a teenage Laura McPherson leaves her house in a sleepy town on Vancouver Island for a run — and never comes back.

It’s told from the perspective of her younger brother David 20 years after her death, after he has lost his father and mother and is the last family member left standing. David, it seems, has been stuck at home since losing his sister; stuck in his life, stuck in his parents’ basement.

As David dodges calls from a once-local journalist looking into Laura’s death — and more banal violence unfolds around him — he finally seeks the answers he wants about what really happened to Laura.

For your old college roommate who’s now with BC Housing and feeling the pressure:

The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet
Jeff Goodell
(Little, Brown)

Your roomie is hopefully getting some real housing built, but they’d better factor in air conditioning and water conservation for even the humblest home. Goodell shows how easy it is to die when temperature and humidity combine to make sweating useless and cardiac arrest almost certain.

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For the dads pondering retirement from the insurance industry (this’ll be the clincher):

The Great Displacement: Climate Change and the Next American Migration
Jake Bittle
(Simon & Schuster)

Home insurance for the rest of the century is going to be impossibly expensive, or just impossible. Too many homes (and cities) in the United States and Canada are built on flood plains, or in the middle of deserts, or on the highly flammable wild land-urban interface. Jake Bittle goes into gritty detail about the consequences for people who need to migrate when they won’t know where to go. Dad may know the safest retirement haven; if so, follow him.

For your friend stuck in their rainy winter apartment, longing for a sunny frolic in French fields:

Juliette
Camille Jourdy
(Drawn & Quarterly)

The lithesome, effervescent joy of the French countryside comes bounding out of every page of Camille Jourdy’s gorgeous graphic novel. All this beauty is not without some complexity, most notably in the form of family and relationships.

When a Parisian resident named Juliette returns to her hometown in search of some calm and quiet, what she finds is the opposite. Her parents, although long divorced, are still intent on torturing each other. Meanwhile her sister has embarked on an illicit affair that involves elaborate costumes. But most wondrous of all is love in the form of a sad-sack neighbour who comes peeping out of the underbrush.

While the immediate glory of Juliette is the beauty of the natural world caught in butterfly hues of pink, green and mauve, it is the emotional nuances, colours and flavours Jourdy captures that linger the longest. Against the whirling fecundity and loveliness of forests and fields, the kooky humans try to work out their issues as the world turns cartwheels around them. Thus was it ever.

For everyone hungry for a little hope about agriculture:

The Lost Supper: Searching for the Future of Food in the Flavors of the Past
Taras Grescoe
(Greystone Books/David Suzuki Institute)

Did you know 99 per cent of the world’s Holstein Friesians issue from just two bulls? That’s just one of the alarming factoids Taras Grescoe recently shared with The Tyee in an interview about his latest book, The Lost Supper.

But it’s not all doom and gloom: Grescoe, the author of previous books about public transit and eating small, readily available fish, makes the case that we can look to the past to make meaningful changes and eat well while mitigating climate and other agricultural catastrophes. An extra plus: one of the chapters makes a very convincing case for why we should all be eating more farmhouse cheese.

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For your nephew sweating it out with his first novel:

The Imposters
Tom Rachman
(Bond Street Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House)

Tom Rachman is a writer’s writer. A consummate stylist, he is at the height of his powers in The Imposters, where he uses the character of a writer named Dora Frenhofer to examine ideas of fame, failure and fate.

If ever there was a poster child for Polish laureate Czeslaw Milosz’s famous quote, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished,” it is Dora. The ultimate unreliable narrator, she is not the easiest person to like or want to spend time with, but over the course of the multiple narratives that make up the book, she takes on a curious poignancy, albeit one composed of both bitterness and quirky humour.

It’s a chewy combination that initially takes some getting used to, but at the end of the day, there is a little Dora in all of us.

For the Canadiana romantic in your midst:

Farley and Claire: A Love Story
Michael Harris
(Greystone Books/David Suzuki Institute)

Michael Harris, award-winning journalist and author of multiple investigative books, this time uses his skills to lay bare secrets of the human heart. Farley Mowat was a married father and not yet the Canadian icon who would write Never Cry Wolf when he met the young Claire Wheeler.

Their love at first sight charted a risky new course and Harris has the documents — fiery, frank, lusty letters exchanged over many years. Happy Adventure, they named their sailboat, but this is a wave-tossed journey, as both struggle to realize their creative powers without sinking what we now can see is a great literary love story.

For your friend who was recently elected to their housing co-op board and is questioning their life choices:

On Community
Casey Plett
(Biblioasis)

The experience of reading Casey Plett’s book-length essay on the meaning of community is akin to leaning back and receiving the scalp massage you didn’t realize you needed. It’s bracing, refreshing, and smartly reassembles the loose matter rattling around in your mind. Plett’s sharp interrogation of what makes and breaks a community is shaped by a desire to get clear on a word that can be thrown around too casually without acknowledgment of its import.

Plett holds up her informing experiences with the communities that shaped her life to walk us towards a sharper understanding of belonging and, inversely, how the power of groups can leave lasting harms. The book takes us to the rural Manitoba Mennonite communities where Plett grew up, to the dark isolation of her insomniac youth, to the internet spaces where she found connection as a young trans woman, and to the trans social circles and queer publishing scenes that she travelled in as a young adult in New York City.

With humour and verve, Plett cuts through the platitudes often associated with how we talk about community. She offers a welcome, incisive analysis of power and belonging that feels as lived-in as it is hopeful.

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Burning Sage: Poems from the Lytton Fire
Meghan Fandrich
(Caitlin Press)

Meghan Fandrich’s home on the edge of Lytton, B.C., the village that was destroyed by wildfire in 2021, was spared in the flames — but Klowa Art Café, which she ran for 10 years, was not. Burning Sage is the story of what happened when wildfire tore through the community, and what happened afterwards, when, as Fandrich writes, news cameras were “extracting/trauma/for the consumption of the viewing public.”


With contributions from David Beers, andrea bennett, Crawford Kilian, Abby Luciano, Jackie Wong and Dorothy Woodend.  [Tyee]

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