Since 2008, the first Book Banter column of the new year always meant taking one last look at the year before and see which books stood out for me over the previous 12 months. This past year, like ever other year, I read an average of 50 books, so that it can be reviewed in the pages of The Montreal Times practically every week. Choosing a book to review is always done through a personal process of elimination, and that same process is done as I decided which were my favourite books of 2018.
And this year was quite the interesting one for the book trade. The year was sandwiched with a large proliferation of titles that dealt with the Trump presidency (negative or positive); the trend towards buying physical print books at bookstores was on the rise; and Becoming, the memoirs of former First Lady Michelle Obama, was the best selling book of 2018, with close to three million copies sold within a month of its release (and Ms. Obama will continue her book tour in 2019, making a stop at the Bell Centre on May 3).
So, without further ado, here are my favourite books of 2018.
Robin by David Itzkoff – This is my choice for book of the year. Itzkoff writes a thorough, probing onstage/offstage look at the life and career of this tortured comic genius. The impression you get after reading this lengthy biography is that Robin Williams was an individual who wore the masks of comedy and tragedy quite well through his short 63 years on this planet (albeit too well). This is a perfect companion piece to the excellent HBO documentary “Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind”, and is another strong argument that comedians are such insecure, tragic figures.
Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff and Fear by Bob Woodward – These books offer quite a 1-2 anti-Donald Trump combination that packs quite a punch. Like I have said before, Fire and Fury provides the spark that lit the fuse about what really goes on at the Trump White House, and Fear is the explosion, with Wolff offering a fly-on-the-wall perspective, and Woodward utilizing his skills as an investigative reporter that he has developed more than 40 years ago during his stewardship at the Washington Post. These two books really stood out amongst the plethora of books that were published throughout this year about that train wreck that is the Trump presidency, because they fully explained how and why it became such a train wreck.
Chasing Hillary by Amy Choznik – This is a fine example of the trench coat memoir genre, which gave a first hand account of what went wrong with Hillary Clinton’s turbulent 2016 presidential campaign, from the viewpoint of one of the reporters on her campaign bus. Choznik, who is a reporter for the New York Times, also offered a stinging indictment on what female journalists still have to struggle with while trying to succeed in what is still a male-dominated bastion. And to top it all off, she had to spend a year covering a presidential candidate whom she was on frosty terms with at best.
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life by Eric Idle – This memoir is the fifth to come from a member of the legendary six-man British comedy team Monty Python (Terry Jones is the remaining Python member to have yet go the memoir route). And it’s one of the most enjoyable, rollicking, unpretentious memoirs of the bunch. From the Cambridge Footlights to Python to the Rutles to Spamalot and beyond, Idle recounts his 50+ years on the forefront of the modern British comedy scene with a lot of anecdotes and heaping doses of his rather self-deprecating sense of humour, especially when he recounts how a song he wrote to simply end off the Python’s 1979 film “Life of Brian” became such a universally recognized anthem.
The Making of the October Crisis by D’Arcy Jenish – This is probably one of the most definitive works on what is the most harrowing month in Canadian history, in which its reverberations are still being felt nearly 50 years later. Veteran journalist Jenish gives a thorough historical background to the political and violent events that shook Quebec to its foundations, and led to the kidnappings of James Cross and Pierre Laporte by two cells of the FLQ in October of 1970. Jenish’s recounting of the day-to-day happenings of the crisis are so vivid, that those who read the book who were around at that time, will be haunted once again by the encompassing fear and images of that tragic month, whether it was the on-air reading of the FLQ manifesto, the armed Canadian soldiers posted throughout the streets of Montreal, or the discovery of Laporte’s body in the trunk of an abandoned car at the St. Hubert air base.
Hollywood Heyday by David Fantle and Tom Johnson – You have to give credit to Fantle and Johnson, who 40 years ago were two University of Minnesota students with a shared passion for classic Hollywood movies, who managed to transcend that passion and got lucky to land an interview with the legendary Fred Astaire for their college newspaper. Since then, the duo sat down and interviewed a great number of surviving legends from Hollywood’s golden age – many of whom were long retired or were in the twilight of their careers – and selected the best of those interviews in their book Hollywood Heyday. Whether they be actors, directors, writers or composers, Fantle and Johnson’s dogged determination and sharp interviewing skills ended up with profiles that are unashamedly honest and does away with any sugar coating about their time in the Hollywood spotlight. As well, many of the profiles in the book recapture the story behind the story, and the lengths they took – not to mention the hoops they figuratively had to jump through – to land that coveted celebrity interview (check out the James Cagney profile for a glaring example).
Bibliophile by Jane Mount – For book lovers and those with a love of reading, this is the ideal book for your ideal bookshelf. This eye-catching tome has everything for the bookworm to appreciate, from a ranking of best books in a wide variety of known and unusual genres, to what libraries to visit around the world, to what bookstores to shop at, to what historic literary landmarks to experience. Beautifully illustrated (all done by Ms. Mount herself), this is a wonderful look at the world of books, and the literary treasures both past and present that it has to offer.