The 10 books you must read in 2018

My records show I read 52 books during the second half of 2017 as Stu and I travelled the USA and Canada. That’s two books a week – not bad, considering what else we packed into 26 weeks. I’ve picked the top handful, the books that changed or moved me the most, to make this reading list for 2018, should you choose to accept it. It starts in March, given I got to this post rather later than I planned!

March: The Course of Love, Alain de Botton

Read in San Francisco.

Not so much a novel as popular philosophy novelised, a story examining modern love – not something natural, but something that occurs now, as it always has, within a particular social context. Alain de Botton has noticed that after the old “how’d you meet?” chestnut, no one ever seems to want to know what happened next – after the marriage. He talks about boredom, compromise, fighting, cheating. Childcare, and eventually parent care. The erosion of ideals of passion, perfection, grand romance. And then – what remains. He explores all the evidence that a lover can’t be everything, perform every function and fulfil our every need – and yet how we still expect them to be. This is a conversation society must have – indeed is always having, almost unconsciously and circuitously. De Botton gives it meaning and usefulness via a beguiling and very readable parable. Should be required reading for all adults.

April: The Ellie Chronicles, John Marsden

Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

Read in Union Reservoir, Longmont, Colorado

The follow-up trilogy to John Marsden’s groundbreaking Tomorrow series, these books are riveting. I know I have now listed a trilogy as one book, but hey, they’re short. Together they make up one large book and they’re smarter than plenty of so-called adult novels. As well as satisfying the hunger to find out what happened to Ellie and her friends, they’ll remind you how blunt and delicate and evocative and honest John Marsden’s writing is. I’m so grateful this wonderful man gives us what we so badly need: our own country on the page. You can practically smell the eucalyptus wafting up from the page, yet above all these are stories of people: their loves and losses, grief and courage, the weird bonds that remain when everything else in a life changes beyond recognition.

May: The L.A. Quartet series, James Ellroy

Read in a poky room in LA.

I’m cheating again. This is actually four books. Four big, gloriously fat, difficult books. I had already read The Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential. While away I completed The Big Nowhere and White Jazz. James Ellroy is known for his razor-sharp prose, hard and dense and staggering. It’s unlike any other author’s writing, ever, and you can’t really say you know crime literature or even American literature without knowing Ellroy. Be careful, though – this is the most violent stuff I’ve ever read (or seen onscreen, for that matter). It’s not for the fainthearted. It requires time and commitment and focus. It’s worth every minute. And I recognise that realistically you’re only going to finish the first one in May. That’s OK. Just make a start.

 

 

June: The Diamond Age, Neal Stephenson

Echo Park, LA - a good place for reading

Read in Echo Park, L.A.

For fans of clever, classic sci-fi. So clever I confess to skim-reading some parts I just couldn’t understand (Stephenson is actually a scientist). But above all it’s a rip-roaring story. Nell is a smart but disadvantaged child in a supremely uncaring dystopia. She gets one chance to break free from her origins when she comes into possession of a stolen “book”, the world’s most precious technological creation: a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. What she learns inside will change history as much as it changes her. This book is top-shelf. There’s a reason Neal Stephenson is as rare as hen’s teeth in secondhand bookstores. He is the real deal.

July: Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer

New Orleans

Read in New Orleans.

Modern literature from one of the world’s best. A family saga, an examination of modern Judaism, a visionary contemplation of the fragile peace between fraught nations, a deeply intimate look inside a crumbling marriage. A funny, sad, page-turning read, the kind you can’t put down even when your eyes get sore and you’re afraid to find out what happens. Do it for book club. Give it to anyone. Sink your teeth in. A solid bet.

August: All the Light we Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

Our first AirBnB, in Bangor, Maine

Read here in Bangor, Maine.

I seemed to read a lot of books about marriage, perhaps unsurprisingly given the opportunity to navel-gaze for six months in tiny rooms with the love of my life. The other emerging theme turned out, to my surprise, to be war and Judaism. Synchronicity perhaps, as we looked at so many museums of world history, with the Holocaust staining it all like red paint thrown across a canvas. In this vein I also read the older but still incredible The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and the Victor E Frankl classic Man’s Search for Meaning. This book, All the Light we Cannot See, won the 2014 Pulitzer after taking the author ten years. I understood why it took so long. The quality and quantity of detail, its careful arrangement, the love and work that went into these parallel stories of a young blind French girl and a young German boy soldier in WWII glimmers from every page. An absorbing, original, readable, beautiful book to bring you to your knees.

September: The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron

Read throughout the east coast and finished somewhere around here, North Carolina.

Still flying off the shelves after 26 years in print. It’s a workbook above all else, an inspiring, amusing and practical book on loosening the pent-up creative artist inside every human – that artist most of us lock up sometime after childhood, and before adulthood. This is perhaps one of the most illuminating books I have ever read. It’s changed the way I see the world, the way I interpret every event. It ensured I not only left NYC having completed my manuscript edit, but that I spent the final few months of our trip churning out the manuscript of a second novel. And it ensured I spent all the intervening time jotting notes for the third. If you’ve ever buried a secret love of drawing, writing, painting, performing, or silently felt longing to write a screenplay or movie or play or just MAKE something, and that little ache just always stays in your heart… read this.

October: Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel

Read by the window in Park Slope, Brooklyn.

You’ve had your Alain de Botton primer and you’re ready for Lesson 2. For anyone interested in marriage, fidelity, sex and passion, healthy relationships and just the art and science of human communication, both are required reading. Esther Perel is a rock-star in the field. She has been interviewed on the Tim Ferriss Show and recommended by Dan Savage of the Savage Lovecast. A holistic, fascinating and vitally refreshing look at the poetry, politics and power of sex and the role it plays in modern relationships, it really changed my perspective. Our subsequent discussions on the topics it introduced deepened our understanding of each other and of society, and without doubt strengthened the foundations of our marriage.

 

 

November: On Writing, Stephen King 

Read on NYC subways. Lots of them.

I owe this writer so much for his inspiration and practical advice, as well as the hours of sheer pleasure of devouring everything he’s ever written. He has taught me not only that writing can be fun but that it should be fun. Yes, you can do it. Yes, you can make money. No, you don’t have to be a tortured soul or a starving artist or an alcoholic or suicidal or a drug addict to make good art. This, like all his books, is just a bloody good read. Part memoir, part deconstruction of process and part solid advice, it’s a must-read for all fans. In fact Gerald Winters, owner of the King bookstore in Bangor, Maine, told me the vast majority of King fans, writers or not, name this their favourite of all his works.

December: Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach

 

Read near Woodstock in the Catskill Mountains, upstate NY

Don’t hold the title against her. The publisher probably made her do it. Tara Brach, also featured on the Tim Ferriss Show, is an American meditation teacher. Don’t hold that against her either. Hell, just swallow all your judgy superior thoughts and excuses about why you don’t meditate for a minute, all right? This book is wise and powerful and compassionate. It’s a thoughtful examination of the role suffering plays in human lives. It offers an – dare I say it? –  enlightened understanding of the experience of being a thinking, feeling, loving, living, feeling, hurting person. It addresses that gap you feel deep inside yourself, the one that usually makes you go and get another glass of wine or handful of crisps rather than thinking about what’s bothering you. Reading this book made me do that thinking and it reverberates through my consciousness daily.

 

OK, now it’s December, you don’t have time for any more reading. Go do your Christmas shopping.

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The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 19: On Beauty (Zadie Smith, 2005); a.k.a Books on a Plane.

Books left: 7. Weeks left: 11 (every little thing is gonna be all right). 

The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.

Airport fiction at its finest.

Airport fiction at its finest.

This book and I spent eight hours stuck at Sydney airport together and we’re still friends.

With the innocence of fools and babies, the Ministry and I got on a plane bound home to Perth at the end of a nice weekend away, with no aim more ambitious than watching a better movie than Annabelle, which we had watched on the outbound flight. But the plane needed refuelling, then it needed its tyre changed or something, then the computer that looks at the tyres blew up or something, so after an hour of sitting on the plane the staff apologetically chucked us all off again and told us to await more information. For the next eight hours.

So, we went and spent $70 on lunch, because by then I was a slavering, enraged beast, and quite a bit more money on espresso martinis and beer (respectively) and then they told us we could have a $16 voucher each to spend on food, but we had to wait in line for an hour for that, and by the time we got them we were full of food and vodka and beer, and not hungry any more, but by then I was damn well going to spend every cent of those vouchers, and went to a cafe where I bought $32 worth of hedgehog slices, flavoured bagels and bottled water, which I jealously squirreled into my hand luggage.

By the time the replacement flight finally left we were bleary and greasy and our fellow passengers, who had been shouting angrily and shaking their fists at airport staff two hours before, chattered animatedly as we waited for takeoff.

A cheer actually went up when the plane finally left the ground (and again when it was announced we’d get free booze to take the edge off our suffering. Perhaps judiciously, they were very slow about delivering the free booze, with the result that the Ministry and I spent about 12-13 hours hovering on the edge of drunkenness but never quite got there).

It was out first experience of the camaraderie of the shipwrecked traveller and through our exhaustion we rather enjoyed it.

032

Oh yes, the book.

Essentially I left our holiday destination, Mullumbimby, having just begun it, read it at Gold Coast airport, then throughout the flight to Sydney, then the stopover in Sydney, then the unanticipated stopover in Sydney.

When we finally got on our replacement plane it was entirely devoid of screens, so I kept reading until the bitter end. All in all I read this novel virtually uninterrupted for about 13 hours. I finished the epic binge-read three hours into the flight to Perth at about 11pm, with bleeding eyeballs, and I didn’t regret a thing.

Most particularly I was thankful for my eleventh-hour pre-holiday decision to bring this book and not Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. Something tells me that the Salinger, despite being one-sixth of the size, would have lasted the whole 13 hours regardless and made me want to jump out of the plane.

I had this in my collection having once read Smith’s earlier novel White Teeth. Though I couldn’t for the life of me now tell you what White Teeth was even about I do recall it being very good, hence carrying this around for what was likely a decade.

On Beauty is a story about family, marriage and the betrayal of the bonds associated with both. Set amid the perversity and irritations of university communities, it is a fitting follow to The Wife Drought in its interrogation of what people sacrifice for the sake of their unions, and for their children, and of the horror that comes with awakening to the fact that perhaps no love is unique.

All I know is that loving you is what I did with my life. And I’m terrified by what’s happened to us. This wasn’t meant to happen to us. We’re not like other people.

The book is wise but it is also funny. Smith tells stories of people and their relationships but her sentences also stand alone, delightful in themselves. Some tasters for you:

Each couple is its own vaudeville act.


He leaned forward with the clumsy loom of the natural pet-hater and child-fearer, all the time clearly hoping for an intervention before he reached the dog.


Kiki laughed her lovely big laugh in the small store. People looked up from their specialty goods and smiled abstractedly, supporting the idea of pleasure even if they weren’t certain of the cause.


These people spend so much time demanding the status of adulthood from you – even when it isn’t in your power to bestow it – and then when the real shit hits the fan, when you need them to be adults, suddenly they’re children again.


She was a woman still controlled by the traumas of her girlhood. It made more sense to put her three-year-old self in the dock. As Dr Byford explained, she was really the victim of a vicious, peculiarly female psychological disorder: she felt one thing and did another. She was a stranger to herself.


“Anybody for a lift into town?” asked Howard.                                                                    “I’m happy to drop everybody where they need to go.”                                                    Two minutes later Howard rolled down the passenger window and beeped his horn at his three half-naked children walking down the hill.  All of them gave him the finger.


Honestly, this is just fantastic. Perfect for your mum’s book club. Perfect for yours. Do it. Hell, do it in a day. It’s possible. Just load up on martinis.

Note: the Minstry and I, having arrived home at midnight rather than at 4pm as planned, were too traumatized and jetlagged the next day to leave the house, so it’s lucky we had $32 worth of hedgehog slice, bagels and Cool Ridge.

Keep or kill? Kill, with goodwill. Another of those that you pass on because you know it’ll brighten someone else’s life. 

More on The Curing of a Bibliomaniac project here.