Top 3 Fiction
A Deadly Education, Naomi Novik
I snuck this one in in the last week of 2021, and was overwhelmingly grateful to have the sequel, ‘The Last Graduate’ waiting next to my bed. I would have been devastated to have read something SO GOOD, and not be able to keep reading.
What I loved about this: the protagonist, Galadriel, is a teenage wizard, constantly irritated to the point of wanting to murder everyone. She wants to do the right thing and be a good person, despite being the centre of a prophecy that foretells she will be the bringer of doom and destruction to all wizard-kind. She is constantly battling the urge to fulfill the prophecy, which would be so easy, since her school keeps feeding her spells for erupting supervolcanoes, and building dark towers to impale her enemies upon.
The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
I’m a bit late to the game with this one, but am so glad to have read it. It’s the kind of book I will get my kids to read when they are 13 or 14, by telling them there are “adult things in here that might not be appropriate for them…” Which there aren’t, but they will smell my enthusiasm for it too quickly unless I veil it…The book follows two teenagers who are in love, but also live with different experiences of cancer. Cancer, though, is not the point. The point is about how to be alive in the face of mortality. As Hannah Arendt says,
We will lose everything we love, including our lives — so we might as well love without fear, for to fear a certainty is wasted energy that syphons life of aliveness.
Charlotte’s Web, EB White
This book wasn’t a part of my childhood, so I had the joint pleasure of experiencing for the first time as I read it to my 6-year-old and watched his joy. I have Strunk and White’s classic ‘Elements of Style’ (an absolutely essential reference on the craft of writing) always within reach of my desk, and it was a joy to read this story, and to witness how craft can truly elevate art. Every sentence is so deliberately crafted, and also so full of heart and beauty. But it is the craft itself that clears the window of all unnecessary scratches, so that we can see clearly through it to the story.
Top 3 Non-fiction
Dark Archives, Megan Rosenbloom
Rosenbloom takes a niche, esoteric, and slightly morbid obsession of hers, ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’—the study of books bound in human skin—and follows it down dark alleys that lead to wide open plazas of history, sociology, and very human stories that embody some of the most fundamental aspects of our existence together: consent, power, autonomy.
I learned how the French Revolution created our present-day system of medical education and hospitals, before which, surgeons were considered the same as barbers, and doctors had little, if any, formal training. How, until alarmingly recently, doctors acquired cadavers as a standard practice, from career graverobbers. How this led, inevitably, to desperate and enterprising people committing serial homicides in order to ply doctors with cadavers for training. I learned that the most frequent owners of human skin-bound books were not Nazis or malignant dungeon-dealers, but mostly doctors—which is its own gateway into the problematic history of the medical profession and its endemic exploitation of the poor, of women, of people of colour.
As a songwriter, what I loved most about this book was how it took a simple object and used it as a magnifying glass into the human story. Megan didn’t just show me the object she was looking at in a new way; she reminded me to open my eyes and see; that there is story behind everything, if you pay attention and ask the right questions.
You can listen to Megan talk about it on one of my favourite podcasts of 2021, Ologies!
The Anthropocene Reviewed, John Green
Yes, I’m officially a John Green fan. This is a book of non-fiction essays, in which Green rates seemingly unrelated phenomena of the human-centred era using a 5-star rating system, which is really just a way to talk about things that have moved him, in one way or another, from the Lascaux Caves, to scratch ‘n sniff stickers, to Canada geese.
There are amazing stories and disturbing facts (“The biomass of all living humans currently on earth is about 385 million tons. The biomass of all our livestock is about 800 million tons. The biomass of bacteria is about 35 times the biomass of all other living creatures on earth”), as well as startling and moment-stopping reflections on hope through the eyes of someone (Green himself) who suffers from intense periods of depression:
I sometimes stop hearing the tune. I still become enveloped by the abject pain of hopelessness. But hope is singing all the while. It’s just that again and again and again, I must relearn how to listen.
The Shape of Sound, Fiona Murphy
Fiona Murphy is a physiotherapist, who is completely deaf in one ear. She grew up being able to ‘pass’ as a fully hearing person, even though her experience of the world, and of herself, is profoundly shaped by the way she hears (and doesn’t hear) the world. The book is something like a memoir, but written in a moment of her young adult life when she is only now starting to grapple with her own experience of deafness, and Deaf culture.
What I loved about the book: I loved that it isn’t written from a place or pretence of having ‘figured it out’. It’s someone still grappling, and expressing value in the grappling, not in having achieved a sense of ‘what it all means’. It’s a book that feels like a sequence of great questions, rather than pretending to have answers.