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 4: New York City (warning… epic post)

StuMo’s Guide to Broadway

  • Book of Mormon justifies our entire trip to the states.
  • 1984 replaces important literature with offensive noise, felonious lighting and graphic torture scenes. People walked out.
  • Marvin’s Room like a high-school play but with famous people. (to clarify: I did like it and would recommend)
  • Aladdin: If you have to change the lyrics to one of the songs because you cut a main character (Abu), you are doing it wrong. The Genie had to take breaks mid song, even pausing mid line to catch his breath. Jasmine was utterly woeful.  My year 7 graduation version of A whole new world was more on point. “Hold your breath it gets better” = bad advice, because it most certainly did not.
  • Lion King was everything and more. Dance fighting with animals! When Zazu sang Let it Go instead of It’s a small world I died. Such an unforgettable way to spend our last day in NY.

But to go back a month in time…

We left PEI and drove six hours through an ever-denser grey abyss of fog and cloud that swamped the Canadian horizon, a Twin Peaks-esque tableau as surreal as it was beautiful.

It was a long haul, though (“LANE!!!”) and we were ready to surrender to a bus driver after returning the Chevy to Bangor. Another fabulously kind local, Pat from Rent-a-Wreck, gave us a lift to the station.

Hello NYC: a dancer makes the most of a stunning Brooklyn Bridge backdrop for her rehearsal.

Hello NYC: a dancer makes the most of a stunning Brooklyn Bridge backdrop for her rehearsal.

The cloud continued through Augusta, Portland and Boston, then the rain began. But despite the weather the day seemed brighter in the USA. In fact it seemed to me, as I stared from my front-row seat through the windows, an oddly glorious greyness, tinged with gold. The sort of light that made you feel something grand and mysterious was imminent, the perfect light to herald our entry into NYC – a month I’ve waited my whole life for.

It was then I realised I’d been gazing through the bus driver’s special barrier window which was sepia-tinted and through the rest of the windows was a prosaic, sullen grey. Ha! No matter – nothing could dim the excitement inside.

We arrived ready to party and luckily NYC was more than happy to accommodate with a rooftop celebration on the Fourth of July.

We arrived ready to party and luckily NYC was more than happy to accommodate with a rooftop celebration on the Fourth of July.

It’s not literature that brought us to NYC, I’m sorry to say, but good old television. Friends, Seinfeld and Sex and the City have been our cultural bread and butter since hitting puberty, and before you open your mouth, Stu’s knowledge of SATC is even more comprehensive than mine.

Not to mention the movies – the classics, the crap and everything in between. All of it stamps in your memory the sights of Coney Island. Empire State Building. Central Park. Broadway. Fifth Avenue. Times Square. Greenwich Village. They’re not just emblematic of a country, a state or a city, though they are all this – they are also our neighbourhood, just around the mental corner. To people born and raised on the box, these places are larger than life and on shows like Seinfeld and SATC especially, they’re not settings so much as characters, as inseparable from the content as the actors.

Yep. Central Park looks just like this. Stu spotted this classic "boyfriends of Instagram scene"; girl preening, guy on double duty as oarsman and photographer.

Yep. Central Park looks just like this. Stu spotted this classic “boyfriends of Instagram scene”; girl preening, guy on double duty as oarsman and photographer.

As I have grown older I have become more aware of the odd paradox represented by the allure of a hyperreal land I have never visited. NYC is venerated as the centre of the universe, the common wisdom is that it’s mecca for anyone who wants to be at the top of their profession, be that arts, finance, or anything, or just live in the most exciting place on earth. After so many years of hungering for a Manhattan apartment of my own I had to ask myself, Carrie-style: is it real at all?

This is why we gave ourselves a month: to get the apartment (Brooklyn, though), pretend hard to be locals, and find out.

The answer is of course it’s real. It’s, ye gods, a bigger, hotter, louder, pricier, denser, sadder, funnier, dirtier, stinkier real than the scrubbed, noise-controlled screen versions can truly render (just try to capture the utter surreal madness of Times Square with a point-and-shoot).

Thanks for the parties guys! How's this for a spot to watch the fireworks?

Thanks for the parties guys! How’s this for a spot to watch the fireworks?

We caught up with locals – my old friend Paul and his partner Stephanie, relatively recent Australian expats, treated us to penthouse parties on the Fourth of July; a newer friend Joe, from Brooklyn (Dom and Jess’ best man) took us out to dinner. They all tell me for the time being at least they would not live anywhere else, despite the expense, the long work hours, the high-impact lifestyle.

It’s easy to understand when every day you walk past icons – Liberty, the WTC, the Empire State Building, NBC, Radio City, the MET, the almost supernaturally beautiful Central Park, why New Yorkers would feel like they’re at the centre of the universe and love it.

Lady Liberty: up close, she is colossal, powerful and moving.

Lady Liberty: up close, she is colossal, powerful and moving.

It is also easy to understand why it could make native New Yorkers somewhat insular, give the impression that they’re living in their own little world, that nowhere else is quite real. We observed this and ran it by our friends, and came to the conclusion: of course NYC-dwellers are living in their own little world. It’s complete, it’s self-sufficient. They don’t need to consider what it would be like anywhere else, because they have everything they need. Not to mention all the stuff they don’t need, evidenced by the confronting mountains of rubbish that are part and parcel of this life as much as the glamour.

But they all need to get out of the city from time to time, the natives I meet tell me. Whether it be to the Hamptons, upstate NYC or further, they build down time into their lives.

Central Park provides some gorgeous moments of downtime.

Central Park provides some gorgeous moments of downtime.

We did our best to do NYC justice in a month of touring combined with hard book editing –editing of my first novel is now complete and regardless of what happens now I am proud. I had the experience of finishing the macro edits in the New York Public Library’s Rose Reading Room, which I’ll never forget.

I’m also proud of how much we managed to do in a month. We walked as many of the neighbourhoods of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens as possible, ticked off the big tourist boxes and also did community stuff like farmers’ markets, local theatre, a doggy fashion show. We saw the stuffing out of Broadway. We devoted hours to art galleries and devoured food, glorious food. We quickly abandoned the mid-to-fancy range – there, Perth holds its own – so we concentrated on “only in New York”… bagels, pastrami, corned beef, babkas (yes! Found cinnamon babka!), pizza, international street foods, hot dogs, diner comfort food, cheesecakes, Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi. The only thing we failed to find was a good pretzel. It’s probably a good thing we leave, before I eat anything else.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn Heights.

A Black Lives Matter protest in Brooklyn Heights.

And I don’t know about Stu, but I’m excited about a return to nature. As stunning as Central Park and Prospect Park are, they’re not the nature I know, but a tamed, designed version, despite the “wild” zones – the Ramble in CP and the Ravine in PP. Nowhere do you escape the deafening drone of helicopters, the incessant scream of ambulances, the murmur of twenty million airconditioners running continuously to cool the throbbing heat of this city. It’s so exciting, so stimulating, and yet my heart longs for wildness, for real silence.

NYC is full of incredible beauty and also ugliness, each more intense than I’ve ever encountered. A land of extremes that prompts reflection, but gives you scant time for it. I might be sorry to leave if this were the end of the trip, and I have had mad urges to go and see two plays on the same day, just to fit more in, but we are only excited about the adventures still to come and perhaps finding that reflection time as we travel slowly through North and South Carolina, Georgia, Florida.

But first: two days each in Philadelphia and Washington, here we come!

Central Park's Bethesda Terrace

Central Park’s Bethesda Terrace

StuMobervations part 5: NYC

  • Beer is not sold at bottle-o’s. It is sold at supermarkets with groceries.
  • You can’t pee quietly in an American toilet, the bowl is so full. Average flush = 6 gallons (22.7 litres)
  • Just because it is devoid of all nutrition does not mean it is not food
  • A sweat mop is an essential item.
  • Australia needs the “everything bagel” as a standard lunch option.
  • Never buy a pretzel from a street cart. Look great, but taste like salty cardboard.
  • Maps just give you something to look at while you argue about where you are.
  • Doggy fashion shows are as awesome as you think.
  • I now understand Mitch Hedberg’s – “Would you like anything else with the pastrami sandwich?” “Yeah, a loaf of bread and some other people!”
  • I saw Starry Night!
  • Junior’s cheesecake is better than your cheesecake.
  • Coney Island = Sideshow alley plus horrible beach. P.S. not an island.
  • It is illegal to take your dog on the subway unless it’s in a bag.
  • Times Square should be avoided.
  • Real Kramer Tour means now need to rewatch all of Seinfeld. We got soup!
  • East Village Pub Crawl is the best idea. BYO local guide.
  • Need a book? People leave them on their front porches, or “stoops”, for free.
  • Freegans are people who eat out of garbage cans by choice.
  • Talk to people on the subway if you want, just don’t smile at them. That’s weird.

For the exceptionally committed readers (hi mum) this is exactly what we did… have only named outstanding eateries

Week 1
Stonewall Inn, Washington Square Park, Greenwich Village Walk tour, Tick Tock diner, Brooklyn’s Park Slope walking tour including Prospect Park, farmer’s market, New York Public Library, Fourth of July party day, Fourth of July hangover day, Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island immigration museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Empire State Building, Central Park walking tour part I, Al-di-La restaurant, Peppino’s Pizza part I.



Week 2
Downtown Brooklyn walking tour, Bagel Hole, Shake Shack (thanks Juji), Whitney Museum of American Art, 9/11 Museum and Memorial, Hudson Riverpark, Museum of Natural History, Bricolage restaurant, Guggenheim, Broadway 1984 (average), Junior’s cheesecake, Brooklyn’s annual doggy fashion show, Peppino’s pizza part II.

The memorial incredibly beautiful and sobering, the museum a raw and confronting exhibition. A must do.

The memorial incredibly beautiful and sobering, the museum a raw and confronting exhibition. A must do.

Week 3
High Line walking tour, Strand Bookstore, Katz’s Deli (of pastrami sandwich and When Harry Met Sally faked orgasm fame), Eileen’s special cheesecake, Brooklyn Bridge walk, Prospect Park part II, Times Square, Broadway Marvin’s Room (excellent)Magnolia Bakery of SATC and red velvet cupcake fame, Central Park walking tour part II (Strawberry Fields and the Dakota Building, Ghostbusters sights, Plaza Hotel); Broadway Aladdin (average), the Museum of Modern Art, dinner at Junior’s, NY Public Library part II, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in Brooklyn (excellent).

Subway terminal seen from The High Line

Subway terminal seen from The High Line

Week 4
Coney Island, lots of book editing, Kenka Japanese in East Village with Joe (the end of the mashup video below is Emma failing at the fairy floss machine there), Broadway Book of Mormon (excellent), Ess-a-Bagel, Jim Henson exhibition at Queens’ Museum of the Moving Image, Queens food tour consisting of slice pizza and shawarma, kayaking by the Brooklyn Bridge, Museum of Modern Art part II, epic East Village pub crawl with Paul and Stephanie, ate terrible pretzel off street cart when hungover, regretted this, Kramer’s Seinfeld Tour (yes, Kramer was based on Larry David’s actual neighbour, who cashed in and now does an amazing behind the scenes of Seinfeld tour); Broadway The Lion King, Prospect Park part III.
Last hurrah: back to Peppino’s Pizza for a third time, for what the staff there now know as the “drunk Australian special”.

Spiderman takes a moment to call his folks on Coney Island, a place as grungy and weird as we could have hoped for.

Spiderman clocks off to call his folks on Coney Island, as grungy and weird a place as we hoped.

What we’re reading
Em: On Writing, Stephen King; Wet Magic, E. Nesbit; Mating in Captivity, Esther Perel
StuMo: The Stand, Stephen King

What we’re listening to
Music: The Gospel Album, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (RIP)
Aladdin and Little Mermaid soundtracks by Alan Menken
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets 
read by Jim Dale

What we’re watching
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Excellent 1962 horror movie. Well worth it. 
Game of Thrones