A couple of weeks ago I blogged about my Christmas picks for kids, and today, I’m sharing some of the best books for grown ups that I’ve read this year. 2013 has been a good year for my bookshelf, with some unexpected discoveries and some long-anticipated new releases. I’ll be sharing some of that good book lovin’ with my people this Christmas.
My first choice is a no brainer. Donna Tartt’s The Secret History has been my unchallenged favourite novel of all time since I first discovered it almost a decade ago, and several re-reads in the interim have only cemented its place at the top of the heap. It has actually been more than two decades now since The Secret History was released, and in that time new novels from Donna Tartt have been few (as of this year, two) and far between (one every ten years or so). You can imagine my anticipation, then, when an advanced reading copy of The Goldfinch found its way into my sweating palms. To give you some notion of what to expect (insofar as that is possible), The Goldfinch follows the trajectory of thirteen year old Theo Decker, who, in a daze after the explosion at the Met that kills his mother, smuggles a 15th century Dutch masterwork from the gallery, and embarks upon a decade-long struggle to comprehend what has happened to him, and where he is going. I’ll say no more of the plot – at nearly 800 pages, it’s a whopper of a book, and it is far, far more than the sum of its plot points – and focus instead upon the sheer pleasure of the reading experience. I can hardly articulate how immersed I was, how in love with every sentence, ever paragaph, every page. As in The Secret History, Tartt’s prose sparkles, and her uncanny knack for creating such ambiguity around her characters will have you following Theo down the rabbit hole and into the dark before you have any notion of how completely you are being led. The Goldfinch draws you down the well, into the vast underground caverns of the world and of the mind, and at its centre glows the painting, both an anchor and a mirage, “a tiny fragment of spirit, faint spark bobbing on a dark sea (p. 602).” Do someone a great kindness and give them this book for Christmas (just make sure you read it yourself first).
This is another book I loved so much that I find it hard to talk about, but blogging is clearly not making me more articulate if I just keep saying, “I just can’t describe it!” and count that as writing, so I’ll give it a shot. This a book that is simultaneously about one thing – walking – and about everything – stories, adventures, poetry, history, art, science, mythologies, landscape, death, haunting, memory, memoir… It’s a tricky book to pin down. In terms of structure, The Old Ways is divided up into four parts – England, Scotland, Abroad (Israel, Spain and Tibet), and England again – each part covering a number of thematically themed walks in the given area. This is no travel guide, however, or, maybe it is a travel guide, but the terrain it maps is as much in the mind and the soul as the physical world. As he tramps, Macfarlane explores the relationship of path-forging to story-telling, and examines the almost occult effects of landscape on the psyche. This is travel writing, but it is also a very philosophical, esoteric book, filled with startling and strange ruminations on what it means to be a person moving through the world. With his keen eye for the terrain and vast curiosity about the history and mythology of the regions he explores, Macfarlane seems to perceive broader parameters for existence and for discerning meaning – his is a way of seeing, of knowing, that is utterly unlike anyone else’s. This book opens up the possibilities of sight, perception and movement, and it left me feeling as though I was experiencing the world through a different lens. The Old Ways is a truly unique and curious work, a treat for your soles and your soul.
This one is a bit of a hard sell for Christmas time. Not a lot of uplifting good news in the realm of returned servicemen and -women, and the treatment (or lack thereof) of post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries. Next year, we’ll see the 100 year anniversary of the beginning of World War I, and the publishing machine is already over-stuffing the shelves with new tomes on the subject. Of course, it’s important to know our history, to know what went before, but what David Finkel’s book asks us to do is to face what is happening right now, the shocking consequences of our current military conflicts, not only in terms of what they do to those of other nations but to our own people whom we send into harm’s way. Finkel’s depiction of these returning soldiers and the unbelievable challenges they and their families face is eye opening and heart breaking. From the peaceful privilege of my reading chair it’s impossible to imagine what these young people have experienced overseas, and what they continue to experience – emotional collapse, depression, unemployment, domestic violence, homelessness, suicide – as they come back to a system with inadequate services and inadequate comprehension of the issues they face. Finkel’s writing is superb and the depth of his personal and journalistic investigation impressive. This is such an important story, an uncomfortable story that is easier to overlook, but for the right person this will be a moving and eye-opening gift. (Let me add as a postscript that I followed up this book with The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers, a breathtakingly poetic and shocking novel about the Iraq war by an ex-serviceman. If fiction on this subject is more up your alley, I can’t recommend it strongly enough).
If David Finkel is too dark for you, something by Mary Oliver might be more your pace. She’s been publishing poetry since the 1960s and already has a Pulitzer, so I’m pretty late to the party, but as someone who didn’t previously read poetry for pleasure her work has been a revelation. She does cop a bit of flak for being too accessible, for being a lowbrow poet, but I’m not such a snob that I care about that. New and Selected Poems Volume I opened me up, changed my way of thinking and seeing, forcing me to slow down, allowing my reading to become almost a form of meditation. Oliver invites you to observe nature, to recognise how alien and yet how familiar it is, and to feel your own self, equally unknowable, yearning to disperse back into the world. Like Macfarlane, she offers a different way of experiencing, of existing as a person in the world, and she grapples so gracefully with the anguish of being at once a part of the world and separate to it. One of my favourites, from a collection of the same name, 1978:
Sleeping In The Forest
I thought the earth remembered me, she
took me back so tenderly, arranging
her dark skirts, her pockets
full of lichens and seeds. I slept
as never before, a stone
on the riverbed, nothing
between me and the white fire of the stars
but my thoughts, and they floated
light as moths among the branches
of the perfect trees. All night
I heard the small kingdoms breathing
around me, the insects, and the birds
who do their work in the darkness. All night
I rose and fell, as if in water, grappling
with a luminous doom. By morning
I had vanished at least a dozen times
into something better.
New and Selected Poems Volumes I and II are great introductions to her work. I also love the collections American Primitive, and Why I Wake Early. I don’t know so many people who buy poetry for themselves, but a well-chosen collection makes a beautiful and thought-provoking gift. You may even spawn another Mary Oliver disciple – god knows, one collection was all it took for me!
And there you have it, my Christmas recommendations. If you are a member of my family, spoiler alert, you might be getting one of these for Christmas – I hope I’ve sold them to you well enough!