I’m what most people would call a Book Worm. I read somewhere between 35-40 books a year; some for review, some for reference but mostly for pleasure. If I happen to find myself with a free afternoon or knocked out by the flu, reading is my Netflix; I will happily binge read an entire book (sometimes two) in a single sitting.
Once a strictly Dead Tree Book devotee, I started downloading books to my iPad about a year ago. To say that e-books changed my life would be an understatement. Travelling became lighter. My bedside table collected dust instead of unread books. Most importantly, I could buy books from my bed. No more stumbling into Indigo in my jammies at midnight looking for a literary fix.
Because I read so many books, I am often asked by friends for book recommendations. I’ll happily rave about my most recent fave reads whether they include the latest from a beloved author – Ian McEwan, David Mitchell and Haruki Murakami released stellar novels this year – or recommend an extremely talented first time author (see below). But when someone asks me for “an easy read” I hesitate. I don’t generally read books because they’re easy; if anything, I read books because they challenge me or make me uncomfortable. Rather than allow me to escape or “turn off” a good book is one that fires me up on all cylinders, engaging my brain, my imagination and my heart.
It’s mid-December and “Best Books of 2014″ lists are beginning to appear in my news feed. My go to sites for book recommendations are The Millions, The New York Times and NPR – where you’ll get a diverse crop of Top Ten Lists. Rather than join the fray, I decided to share my personal favourites.
I read three books this year that were my favourite books of the year, if not of all time. The fact that they were written by Canadian women is merely coincidental (and seriously awesome). That two were non-fiction surprised this life long fiction fan.
“North of Normal” A Memoir of My Wilderness Childhood, My Unusual Family and How I Survived Both” by Vancouver-based Cea Person was passionately recommended by a dear friend and fellow book nerd. “North of Normal” is the story of Ms. Person’s extremely unorthodox upbringing off the grid in the wilderness and her tenuous dysfunctional relationship with her family, most notably her relationship with her mother. I picked up the trade paperback version at my favourite local bookstore 32 Books in North Vancouver and dove in immediately. I started reading Cea’s book one Sunday afternoon and didn’t come up for air until I was finished at 2am that morning. I read it while I made my kids dinner, thought about it during Harry Potter story time and like a lover, rushed to get back to it after the kids were asleep. Her writing style and story kept me engaged and enraged – the neglect and abuse she endured was heartbreaking – but what fascinated me was her acceptance of her past. So many writers blame their parents and caregivers, and authors cast themselves as the victim. Cea’s tone throughout was one of acceptance, forgiveness and perseverance. I had the opportunity to meet Cea in person (sorry, bad pun) at a book club and she was open, charming and authentic. I totally Fan Girled her and dominated the Q&A. Getting to know her in real life, I am in awe of her grace, her grit and her humour. She’s at work on her second book and I sure it will be just as spectacular as her first.
“A House in the Sky” by Amanda Linkhout and Sara Corbett was one of those books that EVERYONE was reading this year. It took a full year to take hold. It was named one of the Best Books of 2013 by Vogue, Globe and Mail, Amazon, iBooks, The Huffington Post, and Outside. It was a New York Times Notable Book and on Oprah’s Winter Reading List, but news that it was optioned for a movie produced by and starring Rooney Mara introduced the book to a new crop of readers in 2014. It has been a New York Times Bestseller for 15 (and counting) consecutive weeks
Amanda’s story starts off in a small town in Alberta. The product of a broken marriage and primary caretaker of her younger siblings as her mother pinballs from one inappropriate relationships to another, Amanda is an ambitious young woman who grows up wanting…more. Amanda moves to Calgary in her late teens and begins the Gen Y cycle of working to travel. Working as a waitress to save money, she puts on her push up bra, collects generous tips from oil industry execs then travels the globe. Inspired by a flea market find of vintage National Geographic magazines, Amanda goes backpacking through Latin America, Laos, Bangladesh, and India, then ventures into more dangerous territory in Sudan, Syria, and Pakistan. In order to fund her travels, she finds work as a journalist but is shunned by the “real” journalists she encounters in the field (even at home, our media elite mocks and dismisses her as “not a real journalist”). In August 2008, she traveled to Somalia on assignment and was immediately abducted by a group of Islamic terrorists.
Amanda and her former boyfriend were captured and held hostage for 460 days, transferred from one hellish hovel to another, never seeing anyone but their captors for 15 months. During her detainment, Amanda converts to Islam as a survival tactic but it doesn’t save her from being physically, mentally and sexually abused by her captors. She and Nigel, her fellow captive, briefly escape the Somali gang and the stand-off at a mosque in Mogadishu will crush your soul. Written with an attention to detail and turn of metaphor one only usually encounters in fiction, “A House in the Sky” was beautiful, heart wrenching and inspiring.
My last book recommendation for 2014 is “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel (OK, I’ve got at least 6 more but I’m trying to write a blog post, not a novel). I’ve always been a fan of the postapocalyptic genre – from the Mad Max movies to Justin Cronin’s “The Passage” to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” – I morbidly enjoy narratives about how the human spirit survives when civilization ends. A long time admirer of Cormac McCarthy, I bought “The Road” when it was first released in 2006 but put it on the bookshelf while I worked my way through other books (in addition to parenting a toddler, a new-born and running a business). My ex, also a big reader, picked up my dusty copy of “The Road” one night and disappeared into its harrowing account of a father and son struggling to survive at the end of the world. “The Road” is not for the faint of heart; it is bleak and graphic, scenes of murder, cannibalism and desperation unfold without mercy. For months afterwards, my ex refused to let me read it, going so far as to physically hide the book from me. The nihilism and depravity, he said, would destroy me. I laughed and reminded him that I had read all of Shakespeare, Dante and Jackie Collins. I was pretty sure that I could handle “The Road.”
I was wrong.
But back to “Station Eleven.” One night after a washed up Hollywood actor dies while performing in a Toronto production of King Lear, A SARS-like virus called the Georgian Flu wipes out most of the population, disables all technology and communication and turns the world into a borderless post-apocalyptic wasteland. Decades later, a band of actors and musicians travel back and forth across what was formerly known as The Great Lakes region performing Shakespeare’s comedies and romances, reminding themselves and their audience that even after the apocalypse, art still matters. It’s relatively free of violence and doesn’t moralize and yet there is a persistent longing for what has been lost. It’s poetic and provocative and in my opinion, it’s one of the best novels of the year.