December 19, 2013

10 for 13

Does cozying up with a book or two during the holidays sound about right? In Iceland, after the Jólabókaflóð, books are exchanged on Christmas Eve and then Icelanders spend the night reading.


Makes sense too, Iceland publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world—five titles for every 1,000 Icelanders.


Upon learning this, we were inspired to adapt the Icelandic tradition for our family, Christmas Day. I trust a new book or two will be found under the tree for Christmas to get things underway. And looking back, this past year was full of great reads—oldies and newbies. Curious about our fav’s? Here’s OUR TOP 10 FROM 2013, plus mini reviews.



→ The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
I was taken aback by this one. I mean, it’s a Y.A. novel—a bit of a blow to any intellectual street cred I possessed. However, my ego melted as I read John Green’s prose. It’s straight-forward, anything but juvenile and absolutely took my breath away. Over and over.

→ On The Road by Jack Kerouac
While literally on the road this fall, I went for this obvious classic to accompany me. I had never read any of his works before, but that didn’t stop me from thinking Kerouac was a misogynous bastard. Now I know better, and I don’t feel this way anymore. Being on the road is every bit as romantic as Sal Paradise made it out to be. I’m madly in love with America after spending meaningful time in its belly. I found it sublime and incredible. Very very much like On the Road.

→ By Night in Chile by Roberto Bolaño
Bolaño’s short novella is written in an accessible, conversational style that I love—despite the heavy material it covers. I couldn’t say it better than Francisco Goldman, so I won’t even try: “… the elegantly streaming consciousness of Bolaño’s dying literary priest, merges one Chilean’s personal memories with Chilean literature and history, and ends up confronting us with devastating questions that anyone, anywhere, might, should, be asking of themselves ‘right now.’”¹

→ Coming to My Senses by Alyssa Harad
That I personally know Alyssa made this memoir all the more juicy, and yet played little part in why it’s one of my favorite reads from 2013. This journey delightfully wove together how to reconcile being a died-in-the-wool feminist and indulging in the “girly” world of perfume. Harad’s awakening was made even more delicious as she engaged the American Wedding Complex head-on, via her pending marriage. At its core Coming to My Senses is about acknowledging that we are beautifully complex, pleasure-seeking beings—and more acutely, what it means to surrender to becoming more fully who we are.

→ When Women Were Birds by Terry Tempest Williams
Full disclosure, I’m in the middle of reading this book. It’s Top 10 status is a projection. A confident one at that. When Women Were Birds walks the rare balance between polite and powerful. And to top it off, Williams’ brings the reading experience into the tactile. Take Chapter One:

“[Mother] was dying in the same way she was living, consciously. ‘I am leaving you all my journals but you must promise me that you will not look at them until after I am gone.’ I gave her my word…A week later she died. There were three shelves of beautiful clothbound books. The spines of each were perfectly aligned against the lip of the shelves. I opened the first journal. It was empty. I opened the second journal. It was empty. I opened the third. It, too, was empty, as was the fourth, the fifth, the sixth—shelf after shelf after shelf, all my mother’s journals were blank.”

Then, twelve blank pages follow this quote before Chapter Two begins.




→ Night Walks by Charles Dickens
Dickens’ essay on his engagement with London when he decided to cure himself of insomnia by walking through the city in the wee small hours, was found at a little book shop in Dublin this summer. The crisp Victorian prose was perfect for ambulatory discovery—and for laconic reads while summer traveling in foreign cities.

→ White Noise by Don Delillo
The story deals with the difficulty of grasping a mediated world coming at us uncontrollably and ubiquitously. A pitch perfect postmodern text centered around a generically nebulous, dread-inducing “Airborne Toxic Event.” Delillo’s writing curls up around you, layering on the constructed language like a warm blanket of TV fuzz.

“The sky takes on content, feeling, an exalted narrative life. The bands of color reach so high, seem at times to separate into their constituent parts. There are turreted skies, light storms, softly falling streamers. It is hard to know how we should feel about this. Some people are scared by the sunsets, some determined to be elated, but most of us don’t know how to feel, are ready to go either way.” (p308)

→ Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett
“Don Willsson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.” (p8)

Hammett’s first detective novel, published in 1929, is composed of terse, hard boiled language, and brutally efficient black humor. Fully modern in its plot pacing and dialogue cadence, and particularly well-suited for vacation reading.

→ Watership Down by Richard Adams
A book that grew from stories Adams made up and told to his daughters. Perfect for out loud bedtime reading—if at times tense and ominous. The solid prose construction prompted re-readings—slowly, punctuatingly—to let the delicious words fall over us as the 10-year-old nodded off to sleep. Courage and adventure and loyalty and daring and a great good heroic end, interspersed with text written in the rabbit language “Lapine”.

“…so the sun entered the world in smooth, gigantic power. Nothing interrupted or obscured its coming. Without a sound, the leaves shone and the grass coruscated along the miles of the escarpment.” (p179)

→ Redshirts by John Scalzi
The term red shirt is defined in the Urban Dictionary as “n. Expendable characters. Usually killed in a plot-convenient manner.”

Scalzi provided another read-aloud-at-bedtime story (with some interesting verbal edits neutralizing the not-fit-for-a-10-year-old dialogue). A knowing send-up to the first Star Trek TV series where the redshirted member of the landing party invariably dies before making it back to the ship. Radically the story introduces a meta-narrative plot twist that deals with narrative shortcuts of science-fiction television, and provides for the lovely literary loop-de-loops of the written reading the writer, ad infinitum.


¹ Francisco Goldman “The Great Bolaño” The New York Review of Books, July 19, 2007