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.

Em and Stu do America part 5: Philadelphia and Washington, DC


Outside The White House. Lucky for us all that Jed Bartlett will forever be President. 

A whirlwind trip through Philadelphia and Washington, DC, gave us a piddling one day in each city but you will be thankful to know that true to form I managed a long post.

It is also worth noting our first sight in Philly was a Black Lives Matter protest – the second such protest we have seen, the first being in downtown Brooklyn. Both were in response to police shootings of young black men.


Philly: historic, dignified, but snazzy. This is the waterfront on a Monday night! 

We moved on to see a Philadelphia that is historic and beautiful, navigable and a friendly size after NYC. We gazed through a window at the famous Liberty Bell, shamelessly opting not to wait in line to gaze at it in the flesh.

Highlights – all recommended by Charlie – were the Mutter medical museum where we saw slides of Einstein’s brain! Removed without his family’s foreknowledge in an unauthorised autopsy. Now there’s cheek, helping yourself to Einstein’s brain. Apparently the brain didn’t degenerate as he aged to the extent most people’s do, and several parts of it were much heavier than the lobes of his dumber peers.


Eastern State Penitentiary

Next up was Eastern State Penitentiary, a spooky ruin with a chapel-like feel. The audio tour was narrated by Steve Buscemi! This was were well-meaning forefathers pioneered the idea that constant isolation and surveillance might inspire real penitence and reformation in prisoners. This isolation and surveillance was achieved with the notorious spoked wheel design where a guard in the centre could see down all the corridors just by twirling in his chair.

The place was famous globally, but not everyone thought it was a good idea. Charles Dickens, on his famous American tour that inspired American Notes, was horrified and sure it would send people insane. Whether it did or not, eventually America proved so spectacularly good at incarcerating people, ending up a world leader (Australia ranks surprisingly much better) the one storey wheel design wasn’t economically viable, requiring too much space, and it was this, really, that led to its downfall.


The winning cheesesteak. (Lynette: we shared it!)

But enough about culture, what about the Philly cheesesteak, you ask? We learned this glorious foodstuff should be ordered in a very specific way, and it should be bought from Carmen’s at the fabulous Reading Terminal Market, not the more famous Pat’s (unless you are drunk and desperate).

DC we felt rather sadder about than we would have two years ago. It’s all, so, well, Trumpy and that was partly why we didn’t bother with the exhaustive application to tour the White House. We kept our spirits up for the day by keeping up the mutual pretense that it was actually Jed Bartlett from The West Wing who was really POTUS.


Everyone’s feeling the Lincoln magic

Later we learned that that day, August 3, was actually Martin Sheen’s birthday – spooky.

Regardless, it wasn’t going to be possible to do DC justice in a day, so we didn’t try. We just gawked past the White House, waved to Bartlett (it IS him in there), then spent some time feeling insignificant at the Lincoln Memorial. We stopped by the Vietnam Memorial too in a nod to Stu’s dad’s service, a black marble slash in the ground that contrasts starkly to the tidal wave of white marble that is the National Mall.

The major stop was the Holocaust Memorial Museum, where we spent nearly five hours and still felt we skimmed it. We thought the 9/11 museum in NYC was hard; this was the worst. But we learned a lot and perhaps comprehended more than high school study can make you. Nothing makes it real like walking through a mountain of greyed shoes taken from Jewish people killed at a concentration camp in Poland, a country my grandmother fled on foot to escape the German invasion.


The Vietnam Memorial.


Or walking through a freight car in which Jews were packed into like cattle to the abattoir and driven to their deaths – if they didn’t die on the journey. Or the videos taken by liberating troops at the camps – some of which needed to be hid behind walls so children wouldn’t see – of front-end loaders pushing mounds of emaciated, naked corpses into pits.

Or the elaborate scale model, stretching across a whole room, of the gas chamber system at Auschwitz showing how they killed up to a thousand people a day by channeling them in under the guise of giving them delousing showers. This produced so many corpses they overwhelmed the custom built crematoria and had to be burnt in pits.

This was the “final solution” to the problem of where to put the Jews when other countries had failed to step up and take the flow of refugees while there was still time to save them. Including Australia, which essentially said it “didn’t have a race problem and didn’t want to import one”.


Lightening the mood with a photo of a squirrel. 

Later that same day we heard the embarrassing news about Trump’s phone call regarding refugees with Malcolm Turnbull. As I write this we have just heard the news that a young asylum seeker has killed himself on Manus Island. Seems like Australia still wants to distance itself from the world’s problems.

To move on, after the museum we were obviously totalled, so ended our tour with a stroll past Capitol Hill and an indulgence in DC’s signature food: the half-smoke, a hot dog with a half-pork, half-beef snag and creative toppings. Unfortunately no photo. It vanished too quickly.


Fancy futuristic traino in DC. 

DC, like NYC, was larger than life, another “centre of the universe” spot. But as we board the bus to a lake in North Carolina, I am ready to leave the centre – in fact, we’re excited about getting back to the middle of nowhere!

StuMobservations Part 6: Philadelphia, DC

  • Philly Cheese Steaks left StuMo craving salad.
  • It IS always sunny in Philadelphia.
  • Some shops have power points in the floor for charging personal devices.
  • In Pennsylvania, a foreign DL is insufficient ID to buy booze. Must show passport.
  • Medical museums are depressing.
  • So are Penitentiaries.
  • So are Holocaust museums.
  • So are Vietnam War memorials.
  • We have a lot to be mindful of and thankful for.
  • Washington subway is cleaner and friendlier than New York subway.
  • If you butterfly a sausage and fold it back on itself, it stays in the bun.
  • Do Presidents watch The West Wing for tips? If not, they should.
  • Everything is bigger in America.
  • *Blasphemy Warning* Bacon and cheese on your fries is a big mistake I’ve made twice now.


Gallery: click first image then scroll through for slideshow

What we’re reading
Em: A Tangled Web, L.M. Montgomery; Everything that Remains, Joshua Fields Millburn
StuMo: The School of Good and Evil, Soman Chainani

What we’re listening to
Music: Gurrumul, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (RIP)
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire read by Jim Dale

What we’re watching
Docos! In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan, Being Elmo: A Puppeteer’s Journey