We’re in the process of packing up the house for renovation so I’ve spent the last two weekends culling furniture, clothes, crockery and – wowsers – about 100 titles from my bookshelves. It was either that or stop buying new ones, and we know that’s not going to happen. Almost the first to go was a weighty tome on the so-called greatest writers of the last 2,500 years of civilisation. There wasn’t a single female listed in its 1,000-something pages, or anyone who hadn’t been dead for over a hundred years. Some of those book bucket lists are the worst. It hit the wall before it hit the charity store. Forget that, life’s simply too short.
I remember when we first had our daughter, it was such a huge leap to understand how I’d fit my former (leisurely) life into this newly-shapen one. My reading time and cognitive ability was shot. No matter how planned or prepared I felt, it simply wasn’t enough. Like every other set of new parents, we stumbled around figuring things out, bruising ourselves silly along the way and feeling incompetent in almost every department. We soon found our rhythm, and then everything changed. We adapted. They changed again… of course they did. And every single time I went into a full-on tail spin.
Like an old band aid, children kind of rip away that sense of order and control – the idea that life will continue on just the same as it always has, and that death is somehow being kept at bay – every single day. It feels like a brutal and important process. It certainly informs my writing, and my reading, too. That sense of time running out – especially after the death of a parent and one school year ticking over into another – is, gloomy as it sounds, what stops me carrying on with things I just don’t connect with anymore. Whereas I used to pride myself on finishing every book I started, now I’m no longer so cavalier. More aware that my reading time (arggh, I mean life) is finite. But it’s liberating too.
In the past year, these books were my favourites. Books that I can say, hand on my heart, will make your life better, richer and more interesting for having read them. Or at least they did so for me. At the very least, they make for good dinner party conversation:
The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber
As a teenager I read a tonne of fantasy and science fiction, but haven’t given the genre much time since. This book made me feel like that’s a mistake. I don’t want to ruin it for you with too much detail because it’s worth just diving in. I was given an advance reading copy and knew nothing about it, and the unfolding thrilled me to bits.
Basic plot: It’s the future. Some shady corporation sends a minister to another galaxy to proselytize to the aliens where they’re setting up a human colony. The last minister disappeared, and things are changing back on Planet Earth. What is the true nature of these people, and what does it mean to be human?
It hit me not with a bang, but with a whimper – and that was SO good. Incredible writing, I don’t think Faber’s put a single word out of place in this, his sixth novel. I read somewhere that it took almost ten years to write. It shows.
The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
What can I say? You’ve probably read all the reviews or read it yourself by now, but I do love Tartt’s writing. The hero of this book isn’t its protagonist but Boris, a childhood Russian friend who makes his appearance about a third of the way through. It’s obvious Tartt fell in love with Boris and as a character he just leaps off the page and lodges somewhere in your solar plexus. I fell for him instantly.
The descriptions of the New York antiques-dealing world are totally absorbing for any vintage freak, but the very beginning will have you reminding yourself to breathe – it’s that tense.
It’s a brick of a book and it does start to feel a bit long towards the end, but it’s nothing short of a masterpiece (just like Fabritius’ Goldfinch of the title). Who really wants writing like this to end? All hail Donna Tartt!
Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink
The American healthcare system scares the bejayzus out of me. Ever since I read Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, I’ve been so grateful for Medicare and the UK’s NHS. If Australia ever ends up like the US in this respect, please someone put me out of my misery. And cross your fingers against hurricanes (and cyclones, tsunamis, earthquakes).
This book is a meticulously researched lesson in everything that can go wrong when you put a large corporation in charge of assigning value to human life. Sheri Fink is a doctor herself and relates this horrific and heroic tale like a thriller.
First, forget the natural disaster that culminated in the events – doctors euthanizing patients in hospitals during Hurricane Katrina because they felt so desperate and abandoned – and look at the system that’s really broken: the law (not to mention the government’s so-called Disaster Response). The crazy litigation that takes place across the entire country is why healthcare costs so much for US citizens, and it’s the reason behind poor doctors and patients being kneecapped by exorbitant insurance premiums.
It’s enough to make you want to riot.
The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert
I read Eat, Pray, Love by Liz Gilbert years ago and although I admired the writing, her book didn’t speak to me the way it has to millions of other women. I think it was a case of being at a different life stage, but I was still curious to read The Signature of All Things when a friend recommended it. To go from mere curiosity to absolute devotion towards her fiction in only a few chapters surprised me.
The research in this book blows me away. Spanning the period from the late 1700s through to the end of the 19th century, it tackles big ideas like evolution and the human soul on an intimate, thoroughly engrossing scale. Alma Whittaker and her irascible father, Henry are the sort of characters you rarely come across in fiction – complex, fascinating, heartfelt and utterly unforgettable. I loved them to bits. The Signature of All Things also taught me more about botany and biology than I learned in school, and for that feat alone I award it five out of five stars.
The Mitford Girls, Mary S. Lovell
Oh how I wish I’d met the Mitford girls… to be a fly on the wall at one of their family dinner parties would have been quite something!
Mary S. Lovell said that when she started writing this book, she thought it would be ‘a frothy biography of life in Society between the wars’. But when she started delving into the story of the Mitfords, Lovell saw how their polarized ideologies mirrored those of society at large at the time, and how their filial bonds were quickly strained by politics and the onset of the second world war. To think that Sydney and David Mitford – the parents of these extraordinary girls and their brother, Tom – spawned a famous novelist (Nancy), a runaway communist (Decca), two fascists (Diana and Unity) and two relatively normal women for their social class (Pam and Debo) is somewhat astounding. Thankfully their characters live on through the volumes of letters left behind, Nancy’s fictionalised version of their lives in Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, and in Lovell’s sparkling, vivid book. Totally brilliant.