Author Melissa Steele’s top reads of 2014
UM Today checked in with author and creative writing instructor Melissa Steele about the books that made an impression on her in 2014. Here’s what she told us:
Recently my life has taken a surprising turn and I find myself a student again. As a fiction writer now in the process of taking courses to become a family therapist, most of the books I have gravitated towards this year are those that blur the lines between fiction and non-fiction. I have included four books from 2014 and one classic.
Maurice Meirau (Freehand, 2014)
Meirau’s clean writing style, his depiction of his own weaknesses as a parent and husband and his exploration of his father’s war trauma history are the elements of this book that resonate. He wants to make a story coalesce out of his father’s past and his adopted sons’ present. He doesn’t quite succeed, but I think the raggedness or the “whole story” is a powerful and honest truth. [Read an excerpt here.]
Miriam Toews (Knopf, 2014)
Toews writes what she calls fiction but makes no attempt to hide that the book is based on her sister’s battle with depression and her eventual suicide. Reading the book, I struggled with Miriam’s portrayal of the past once all hope is lost. I couldn’t help feeling that the narrator’s understanding of her sister was shaded by the fact of the irrevocable outcome. If her beloved sister’s depression had subsided over time, if an attempted treatment had helped, if her suicide attempt had failed, the inevitability of her death and the meaning of her life would all be different or at least allow for a greater range of possibility. The book is a valuable contribution to the discussion on what people need to endure living and the legal need for the right to die with dignity, but it is also an after the fact argument for the inevitability of the narrator’s sister’s suicide. The book denies the usual fictional possibilities of other (better or worse) outcomes. [Read an excerpt here.]
Marilynne Robinson (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 2014)
I haven’t finished reading this yet, but the first few chapters reveal that Marilynne Robinson is still able to create a world so completely her own, so beautifully and precisely drawn that it is utterly compelling, like a hypnotic dream. I am a cheerful atheist with no interest in being born again, but Marilynne Robinson’s prose, something she creates within a her own tightly-sealed Christian context, has the power to almost make me reconsider. [Read an excerpt here.]
The great poet from P.E.I, Mark Strand, committed the heinous act of dying this year at the age of 80. I say heinous because I foolishly believed that this man who relentlessly stared down, scrutinized, feared, and faced mortality was a trickster poet whose language feats could outfox death. Strand’s poetry is so personal and so philosophical, so minimalist and so large.[Read Strand’s poems “The Minister of Culture Gets his Wish,” “The Dreadful Has Already Happened” and an interview with Mark Strand in The Paris Review by Wallace Shawn.]
Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy
Irvin Yalom (Penguin Books, 1989). This collection by existential psychotherapist Irvin Yalom reads like the best fiction: Yalom’s empathetic imagination takes the reader to where his clients/characters live, struggle and sometimes learn. This book showed me that therapy and fiction writing are in so many ways the same craft with the same goals, struggles, rewards and risks. [Watch an interview with Irvin Yalom.]
Melissa Steele is a Winnipeg short story writer who teaches creative writing at the University of Manitoba. Her fiction has appeared in journals including Prairie Fire, Zygote and City Magazine. She is the author of two story collections, Donut Shop Lovers and Beautiful Girl Thumb, both from Turnstone Press.
>> See more Best of 2014 lists here.