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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Am I stupid? The kind of existential crisis only Don DeLillo can cause

Nicholas Branch has unpublished state documents, polygraph reports, Dictabelt recordings from the police radio net on November 22. He has photo enhancements, floor plans, home movies, biographies, letters, rumours, mirages, dreams. This is the room of dreams, the room where it has taken him all these years to learn that his subject is not politics or violent crime but men in small rooms.

Is he one of them now? Frustrated, stuck, self-watching, looking for a means of connection, a way to break out. After Oswald, men in America are no longer required to lead lives of quiet desperation. You apply for a credit card, buy a handgun, travel through cities suburbs and shopping malls, anonymous, anonymous, looking for a chance to take a shot at the first puffy empty famous face, just to let people know there is someone out there who reads the papers.

Branch is stuck all right. He has abandoned his life to understanding that moment in Dallas, the seven seconds that broke the back of the American century.

delillo-libra

When I studied literature at uni it was my task to probe deeply into one work of literature at a time, painstakingly dissecting each then fossicking through the rubble for its secrets. On these I was welcome – nay, expected! to write 3000 words. I failed to appreciate this luxury at the time, not knowing or caring that the public like to read things online for perhaps one minute; maybe, if they are very interested, two.

Now that my day job, like so many others’, requires bounding from task to task, email to email and snatching fragments of time for ‘deep work’ that feels as difficult as giving birth (note, I have never given birth), I look back on that time with wonder.

Immediately after it, I avoided ‘hard’ books, plunging through as much crime fiction as I possibly could, and while a murder mystery is one of life’s purest pleasures, the deep reading mind is like a muscle. If you don’t use it, you lose it.

Sometimes I fear I have lost it altogether, and nowhere as much as in the attempt to read Don DeLillo, a postmodernist author described aptly by New Republic as “master chronicler of American dread” in a recent article about how it’s high time he won the Nobel prize already.

Each book is entirely different in subject matter to the last. White Noise, perhaps the most famous, I dissected at university. This story of a professor’s terror of death after an ‘airborne toxic event’ hits his town was one of the best books I have ever read.

Cosmopolis is about a genius billionaire financier who spends the whole book taking a limo across town to get a haircut, encountering various riots and lovers along the way. While it was startlingly inventive I probably, honestly, only got through it because it was relatively short. Later, I thought about watching the movie, a 2012 David Cronenberg production starring Robert Pattinson, but I think I abandoned this idea within minutes. I hope the adaptation of White Noise now underway does better.

Underworld was a massive tome of 1000-odd pages sparked by the parallel events of the 1991 New York Giants’ Superbowl win, and the Soviet Union’s explosion of its first nuclear bomb. It was widely acclaimed as a Great American Novel. I lugged on a camping trip a year or two ago, read a couple of hundred pages, admired the incredibly beautiful writing, then turfed it in favour of something easier.

Turns out even in ideal surroundings, I couldn’t muster the necessary concentration. I was full of theories at the time after a bout of minimising that if I wasn’t enjoying something, I shouldn’t bother, life too short, etc, but it was likely just a cover for the towering ineptitude I felt, failing to force my fragmented modern brain to focus.

So when I recently arrived at Libra, I was full of determination to get some intellectual gumption. Libra, as ambitious as the rest of DeLillo’s novels, blends fiction and fact to recreate the lives and events that coalesced into the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

Threaded throughout it are flash-forwards to the life of Nicholas Branch, an ageing CIA official assigned to write the secret history of the assassination, for Agency eyes only. He has been supplied with every possible material and left alone for years. Decades, even. He thinks they might have forgotten he’s on the payroll. He goes to sleep in his chair sometimes, surrounded by papers and countless words in a room the Agency has paid to fireproof.

He has his forensic pathology rundown, his neutron activation analysis. There is also the Warren report, of course, with its twenty-six accompanying volumes of testimony and exhibits, its millions of words. Branch thinks this is the megaton novel James Joyce would have written if he’d moved to Iowa City and lived to be a hundred.

Everything is here. Baptismal records, report cards, postcards, divorce petitions, canceled checks, daily timesheets, tax returns, property lists, postoperative x-rays, photos of knotted string, thousands of pages of testimony, of voices droning in hearing rooms in old courthouse buildings, an incredible haul of human utterance. It lies so flat on the page, hangs so still in the lazy air, lost to syntax and other arrangement, that it resembles a kind of mind-spatter, a poetry of lives muddied and dripping in language.

Documents. There is Jack Ruby’s mother”s dental chart, dated January 15, 1938. There is a microphotograph of Lee H. Oswald’s public hair. Elsewhere (everything in the Warren Report is elsewhere) there is a detailed description of this hair. It is smooth, not knobby. The scales are medium-size. The root area is rather clear of pigment.

Branch doesn’t know how to approach this kind of data. He wants to believe the hair belongs in the record. It is vital to his sense of responsible obsession that everything in his room warrants careful study. Everything belongs, everything adheres, the mutter of obscure witnesses, the photos of illegible documents and odd sad personal debris, things gathered up at a dying – old shoes, pajama tops, letters from Russia. It is all one thing, a ruined city of trivia where people feel real pain. This is the Joycean book of America, remember – the novel in which nothing is left out.

Branch has long since forgiven the Warren Report for its failures. It is too valuable a document of human heartbreak and muddle to be scorned or dismissed. The twenty-six volumes haunt him. Men and women surface in FBI memos, are tracked for several pages, then disappear – waitresses, prostitutes, mind readers, motel managers, owners of rifle ranges. Their stories hang in time, spare, perfect in their way, unfinished.

It was slow going at first, with me hampered by my lack of understanding of the events of that Cold-War era, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the relationship of JFK with his people, the street life of Dallas, Miami and New Orleans, which may as well be on another planet to Perth, Western Australia, 2017.

I spent the first quarter of the book Googling details I felt, with shame, that I should already know. My eyes glazed over at times. I was spurred on by the moments of just utter perfection I stumbled upon like treasure.

The dog lay throbbing in the shade.

Frank Vasquez showed up with a wife, two kids and some food. The wife and kids took a peek at the visitor. Wayne waited for someone to say, “Mi casa es suya.” He got a little charge from the Old World graces. But they slipped back inside, leaving his smile hanging like a rag on a stick.

One hot afternoon, I lay down in front of a fan, away from my mobile phone, and told myself I could not get up until I had read solidly for an hour. This helped get me over the hump. I finally joined the slipstream. I became absorbed.

I almost began to feel as though I were reading a crime novel as this reminded me, in its beautiful ugliness and powerful sense of place, of James Ellroy’s L.A Confidential, also set in the 1950s.

But between its chronicling the FBI, CIA, New Orleans crime lords, and their circling a stumbling Lee Harvey Oswald like hawks, it returns repeatedly to Branch, locked in his study receiving more and more reference material.

Language begins to loom as a character as much as any other, and perhaps the most powerful, able to oppress those who seek release through it but are unable to control it – not just Branch but Oswald too, whose disability in reading and writing completes his isolation even as he tries to harness words to lessen it.

It was his goodbye to Russia. It signified the official end of a major era in his life. It validated the experience, as the writing of any history brings a persuasion and form to events.

Even as he printed the words, he imagined people reading them, people moved by his loneliness and disappointment, even by his wretched spelling, the childish mess of composition. Let them see the struggle and humiliation, the effort he had to exert to write a single sentence. The pages were crowded, smudged, urgent, a true picture of his state of mind, of his rage and frustration, knowing a thing but not able to record it properly.

He went back to the first day, fall of 1959, jumping right in, writing in a child’s high fever in which half-waking dreams, dreams with many colours, can seem a state of purer knowledge…

Always the pain, the chaos of composition. He could not find order in the field of little symbols. They were in the hazy distance. He could not see clearly the picture that is called a word. A word is also a picture of a word. He saw spaces, incomplete features, and tried to guess at the rest.

He made wild tries at phonetic spelling. But the language tricked him with its inconsistencies. He watched sentences deteriorate, powerless to make them right. The nature of things was to be elusive. Things slipped through his perceptions. He could not get a grip on the runaway world.”    

DeLillo creates a man at the mercy of forces much larger than his own choices;

“He walked through empty downtown Dallas, empty Sunday in the heat and light. He felt the loneliness he had always hated to admit to, a vaster isolation than Russia, stranger dreams, a dead white glare burning down. He wanted to carry himself with a clearer sense of role, make a move one time that was not disappointed. He walked in the shadows of insurance towers and bank buildings. He thought the only end to isolation was to reach the point where he was no longer separated from the true struggles that went on around him. The name we give this point is history.”

This point is arrived at not logically, not by reason, but inevitability.

Plots carry their own logic. There is a tendency of plots to move toward death. He believed that the idea of death is woven into every plot. A narrative plot no less than a conspiracy or armed men. The tighter the plot of a story, the more likely it will come to death.

The novel closes in a hypnotic exploration of the endless looping replay of the terrible shootings on screens both of Kennedy and of Oswald. They somehow never get to the heart of what happened any more than Branch, locked in his maelstrom of paper, can.

By its wrenching close, I’m mesmerised. DeLillo will never be light reading. There is no reason he should be. He has to be one of the world’s best writers and you meet him on his terms. Read it and weep… and remember, the best things don’t come easy.