Throughout 2017 I struggled to keep up with my challenge of reading 52 books in 52 weeks, but for all of the best reasons. My time has been consumed by travel planning and researching, as well as editing pictures and writing blog posts. I also started listening to podcasts this year and have been racing through a few that examine the political and language history of the areas Neil and I have been touring. It’s been a lot of fun, and it feels like I’ve been designing and studying my own curriculum of European history. I have felt incredibly engaged with many of the topics, people, and events I have been learning about.
In the last few months I’ve noticed that my reading tastes have started to shift. Neil and I love to check out different bookstores in each of the cities we visit and I find that I’m being increasingly drawn to non-fiction books about history, maps, and language. Current books that are on my to-read list include: Great City Maps: A Historical Journey Through Maps, Plans, and Paintings; The History Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained; Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World; Empires of the World: A Language History of the World; Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages; Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind and Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology.
Historical fiction has always been one of my favourite genres, so it’s not entirely a surprise when I suddenly can’t move past a book that features splashy maps of medieval city plans. What is surprising is that as our year of living abroad unfolds, I’m becoming less interested in continuing with the fictional novel I have long been working on and, instead, am spending many of my waking hours plotting different blog posts about the places we’ve been seeing and the things I’ve been learning. I don’t know what’s happening, but I’m going to follow my instincts and keep writing what has been giving me a lot of satisfaction. A project is slowly shaping itself around me as I do so, even though I’m not quite sure what it will end up looking like.
At this point, I would like to extend my heartfelt gratitude to everyone who has been reading my travel posts —I really appreciate your attention and feedback. I know that the posts can at times be prohibitively lengthy as I struggle with the balance of expressing my enthusiasm for the subject and the need to show mercy through brevity for the reader. Sometimes, the posts act as a repository for all of the facts I find interesting and all of the pictures I like as I briefly dive deep into a topic. I can be a perfectionist, and publishing and sharing these posts in their still imperfect state is an exercise of vulnerability for me each time. But I need to keep moving, to keep writing, because there are so many cities and sites to recap and the gap between the seeing of the sites and the sharing of the experience just keeps growing!
What all of this means for my reading challenge is that while I’ve been writing, I haven’t been reading—that is, I haven’t been reading novels with the same intensity that I normally do. I’ve been poring through travel books and websites and falling down Google rabbit holes as I fuss with the details of things like baroque carriages and sleighs. So I had a hard time finding books that connected with me the way they have in past years of this challenge. Part of that might be that while traveling I can only borrow books from my library’s online collection, and the titles I’m most excited to read are not always available. Part of it might be that, for once, I don’t need distracting from my everyday life. I’ve found something that is keeping me engaged on a daily basis.
My aunt Christina suggested to me that I consider the cities we’ve traveled to as books that I’ve read. I love that idea. I have spent a lot of time curled up with each city as I research them, experience them, and then edit my pictures from and compile my thoughts on their landmarks, museums, and galleries. Our list of cities-as-volumes in 2017 include Marseille, Munich, Nuremberg, Berlin, Copenhagen, Malmö, Stockholm, and Timrå.
But a good book is always welcome, and here are the ones I came across in 2017 that I am excited to share with you.
1. Get Well Soon: History’s Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them, Jennifer Wright
Yes, a book about historical epidemics including plague, syphilis, polio, AIDS, and cholera, amongst others, was my favourite book of the year. It inspired a blog post already, which you can find here.
Wright discusses the history of these contagions in an engaging, fascinating, and topical manner. For instance, her chapter on the Spanish flu highlights the absolute necessity of a free press. In fact, the name of the epidemic is itself a misnomer. The flu didn’t come from Spain. Instead, Spanish newspapers were the ones that broke the story of an “all-American plague” that government officials and newspapers in other countries covered up to the point of what I would argue is criminal, even murderous, negligence. It was illegal for newspapers in the United States, Britain, and France to report on the flu. Journalists were threatened with execution. Parents might not have had to resort to stuffing their children’s corpses into macaroni boxes (because of coffin shortages) if, instead, they had been adequately warned.
That is just one chapter in this book, and I already have enough fuel to make for at least one spirited dinner conversation. Read this book too, so we can shout about things together.
2. What Happened, Hillary Rodham Clinton
I believed I could contain my thoughts on this book with a simple paragraph summary, but this is proving impossible. I am going to have to write a separate blog post on it after all. I will say that reading this book felt like a moment of respite in the middle of the unrelenting shit storm that was 2017, and continues to be 2018. Yes, it was infuriating to re-live November 2016 (fuck you forever, Comey). But it was such a relief to read Hillary’s intelligent, thoughtful, and articulate commentary. It felt like an adult had finally come back into the room. Hillary Clinton has been a gladiator in the political arena for a long time and here, she shares her experiences. The hardest part of this book is surfacing once more to the realization that she didn’t win, and that the nightmare of that fascist, loofah-faced shit gibbon’s presidency continues. How this woman can still have so much love and hope for a country that—I believe—doesn’t deserve her is beyond me.
3. Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert
If you are looking for a book that will help kick-start your creativity, this is an excellent choice. I’m also going to have to write a blog post on this one, but for now I’ll leave you with a couple of my favourite quotes from this book:
I believe this is one of the oldest and most generous tricks the universe plays on us human beings, both for its amusement and ours. The universe buries strange jewels deep with us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them. The hunt to uncover those jewels—that’s creative living. The courage to go on that hunt in the first place—that’s what separates a mundane existence from a more enchanted one. The often surprising results of that hunt—that’s what I call Big Magic.
Fear is boring. It’s a song with one note, with one word only, STOP! Fear never has anything interesting or subtle to offer. It never changes, never delights, never offers anything. It makes predictably boring decisions. It’s identical to everyone else’s fear. It will never know love or jealousy or triumph. Your fear will always be triggered by your creativity, because creativity asks you to enter into realms of uncertain outcome, and fear hates uncertain outcome.
4. The Sociopath Next Door, Martha Stout
Sociopaths have been on my mind, lately. Certainly since the U.S. election in November 2016. This was a book recommended by the women who host a popular podcast I’ve been listening to, My Favorite Murder. I’m also going to do a separate post about this book. For now, here are some quotes that ring very true for the political time we’re living in. The author addresses the sociopath directly in the following statement:
Most invigorating of all is to bring down people who are smarter or more accomplished than you, or perhaps classier, more attractive or popular or morally admirable. This is not only good fun; it is existential vengeance. And without a conscience, it is amazingly easy to do. You quietly lie to the boss or to the boss’s boss, cry some crocodile tears, sabotage a coworker’s project, gaslight a patient (or a child), bait people with promises, or provide a little misinformation that will never be traced back to you.
Provided you are not forcibly stopped, you can do anything at all. If you are born at the right time, with some access to family fortune, and you have a special talent for whipping up other people’s hatred and sense of deprivation, you can arrange to kill large numbers of unsuspecting people. With enough money, you can accomplish this from far away, and you can sit back safely and watch in satisfaction. If you do it just right, you may be able to make a whole nation jump. And if that is not power, what is?
5. Moonlight Over Paris, Jennifer Robson
This is a lovely novel that takes place in 1920s Paris. After nearly dying of the Spanish Flu and, less seriously, wanting to flee the scandal of a broken wartime engagement, Lady Helena decides to go to Paris to live with her unconventional aunt to pursue her dream of being an artist. Free from the constraints of her aristocratic upbringing, Helena enrols in an art school and makes friends with her fellow students. Paris at this time is full of painters, writers, philosophers, and other bohemian spirits. This was one of the few books I read this year that was a pleasure to escape into for a few hours. It was also written by a Canadian who worked for a summer at the Juno Beach Centre in Normandy, France, which I thought was really cool. The author definitely has a passion for the subject and the location!
6. We Were Liars, Emily Jenkins
Every year, members of the Sinclair family spend the summer together on their private island property. Cadence, the eldest granddaughter, looks forward to the time she gets to spend with the two cousins close to her in age—Johnny and Mirren. The trio, who dub themselves “the liars”, are reckless and inseparable, revelling in the activities of their shared summer childhoods. But as they grow older, they begin to see how the jealousies, addictions, and rivalries of their parents may drive them apart. One summer, Johnny brings a male friend to the island, Gat, who disrupts the balance between the liars. One night, Cadence finds herself washed up on the beach in nothing but her underwear and with a head injury. She can’t remember what happened, but she knows it was something terrible. Two years pass before she returns to the island, and to face what happened between her and the liars.
I can’t tell you too much about this book except that it made me cry profusely. Very well written and engaging. I couldn’t put it down.
7. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante
This is the first of four novels that centre around the lives and the relationship between two Italian women, Elena and Lila, beginning when they are children living in a small, poor Naples neighbourhood and following them throughout the course of their life. The writing reminds me of Maeve Binchy, but grittier. Education is the ticket that could help the women escape the poverty of their childhood, but domestic and national politics frame their lives and opportunities. Competition is the currency of their relationship, and resentment an undercurrent. But something keeps them together through it all, even as they cycle through a lifetime of having different jobs and partners, raising their children, finding success and fleeting happiness, and weathering loss. Is it friendship? Is it comfort that they provide for each other? Love? Is it the shared experience of growing up in their particular neighbourhood?
Read it and let me know what you think.
8. Killer Fashion: Poisonous Petticoats, Strangulating Scarves, and Other Deadly Garments Throughout History, Jennifer Wright
Jennifer Wright makes a second appearance on the top 10 list! This book is an interesting read about the hazards involved in the wearing or creation of certain fashion items throughout history. Each chapter presents a short summary of a particular object or trend accompanied with a cartoon and a four-line stanza that highlight the peril in a humorous manner. The examples used show women and men both suffering in the name of vanity. Some issues discussed include the highly flammable materials (artificial silk, Parkesine cuffs), structure (giant, airy crinoline skirts), and even height of fashionable apparel (three-foot hair-dos and wigs were the perfect height for bumping into lit chandeliers, bonus points if they were greased with animal fat). Factory workers were often subject to highly toxic chemicals such as mercury when making felt hats (“mad hatter’s disease”) or radium when hand-painting watch faces (and licking the brushes to get a fine point) so they would glow in the dark. Belladonna was used to dilute a woman’s pupils to a suitably attractive degree, but side effects included blindness, hallucinations, swelling, and delirium. Queen Elizabeth I kick-started the trend of using white-lead based makeup when she used it to cover up her smallpox scars. Jean Harlow dyed her hair weekly with Clorox bleach and ammonia to achieve her trademark bombshell blonde look until dying at age 26, due to a build-up of toxins in her system. The choking hazards of over-starched collars, neckties, and scarves are examined. Corsets were used to compress a natural waist size into one that was only eighteen (ideal), seventeen, even thirteen inches. Extreme habitual wearing of corsets could distort rib cages and displace internal organs to the point that women wouldn’t be able to stand or support the upper weight of their bodies without them. There were instances of collapsed lungs and even a woman’s ribs piercing her liver.
I said “ugh!” a lot when reading this book, but that’s where the cartoons and the short-four stanza epigraph help; they dull the reading experience just enough that it’s enjoyable again. My favourite stanza was the one that concluded the chapter about the first man to ever wear a top hat, John Hetherington, in London, 1797:
Hetherington debuted his hat,
the crowd went mad, a boy went splat.
Should’ve guessed from how tall he stood,
it’d be a crime to look that good.
People were so surprised, so terrified, by the spectacle that he incited a riot.
This book will make you less angry than Get Well Soon, but it will still provide you with excellent dinner chit-chat.
9. The Madwoman Upstairs: A Novel of the Last Brontë, Catherine Lowell
This is a fun (and fictional) book for English Lit nerds like me who have studied the Brontë sisters at some point. Samantha Whipple is the last surviving descendant, through the line of her deceased father, of the Brontë sisters. She has left her home in America for what she hopes is a quiet, anonymous period of study at Oxford. The problem is, it is rumoured by the media and various academic circles that her eccentric author father has left her a mysterious “Brontë inheritance.” A popular Brontë disciple has recently published a book hypothesizing about all the possible works that Samantha may have acquired but is selfishly hoarding to herself, away from the public. But as far as Samantha knows, her father has left her nothing but grief and the ruins of the burned library he died in. She wants nothing to do with the Brontë sisters or their legacy, but Oxford is not exactly the best place to hide— especially if you are studying English literature. And suddenly, copies of the Brontë novels—her father’s copies, which Samantha assumed had been destroyed in the fire that killed him—start appearing in strange places such as at her doorway and on her pillow.
The plot of this novel occasionally mirrors the plot of Jane Eyre, but retells it in a contemporary way. Another novel that appears on my list, Heroes Are My Weakness, (which I also enjoyed) does a similar thing.
10. Cool Water, Dianne Warren
This novel about a small town in Saskatchewan and the people who live there is a great read. The action starts with something simple, a horse breaking out of its trailer and setting out for adventure on a quiet night while its owner sleeps in her tent. A young man grieving the loss of his adopted parents finds the horse in his yard and embarks upon an extended trail ride that recalls a historic race that took place in that same community a hundred years earlier. A young married woman finds an excuse to ignore her husband’s urgent command to stay at home and deal with the peas in their garden and goes into town with her four young kids on a quest that gets increasingly complicated. A father worried about the future of his daughter, recently graduated from high school and engaged to a local burnout, goes for a lunchtime swim at the local pool where she works as a lifeguard. An older man and woman who have spent years together in platonic company are now shyly considering the possibility of making their relationship intimate. The characters are vividly rendered and their stories effortlessly woven together. The events of the novel take place over just one night and one day, and yet it is all the reader needs to feel that they have lived the lifetime of each protagonist. It is extraordinary how the book expresses a sense of the ordinary so well that the reader feels like they’ve actually stepped back into their own hometown. This is a novel in which chapters are as fully realized as the strongest short story, and continues in the fine Canadian literary tradition of Alice Munro and Carol Shields.
Good (very entertaining, was able to put it down but still looked forward to picking it up again soon, would be excited if a friend had read it but might not otherwise bring it up in conversation):
11. The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas
12. Hunger, Roxane Gay
13. The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante
14. Those Who Leave, Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante
15. The Story of the Lost Child, Elena Ferrante
16. Between the World & Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates
17. We Should All Be Feminists, Ta-Nehisi Coates
18. The Princess Diarist, Carrie Fisher
19. Glass Sword, Victoria Aveyard
20. Heroes Are My Weakness, Susan Elizabeth Phillips
21. The Last Tudor, Philippa Gregory
22. Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
23. Careergasm, Sarah Vermunt
24. Lost in September, Kathleen Winter
25. Ru, Kim Thúy
Medium (enjoyed many parts of it, would suggest to a friend who expressed interest in the subject or author):
26. The House Between Tides, Sarah Maine
27. Anna and the French Kiss, Stephanie Perkins
28. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic, Emily Croy
29. Letters from Skye, Jessica Brockmole
30. The Burning Girl, Claire Messud
31. Everything is Perfect When You’re a Liar, Kelly Oxford
32. I Feel Bad About My Neck, Nora Ephron
33. The Kommandant’s Girl, Pam Jenoff
34. When You Find Out the World is Against You, Kelly Oxford
35. Postcards from the Edge, Carrie Fisher
36. I Remember Nothing, Nora Ephron
37. Heartburn, Nora Ephron
38. Becoming Bella, Sarah Hegger
39. Shockaholic, Carrie Fisher
40. Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher
41. Positively Pippa, Sarah Hegger
42. The Hurricane Sisters, Dorothea Benton Frank
43. Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter
44. The Highly Sensitive Person, Elaine Aron
45. Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History, Katy Tur
46. What She Left Behind, Ellen Marie Wiseman
Okay (an acceptable way to pass the time, some interesting parts, but would not bother recommending to a friend):
47. Always, Sarah Jio
48. Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Angela Duckworth
49. The Hundred Lies of Lizzie Lovett, Chelsea Sedotti
50. The Wish, Cecilia Ahern
On the Verge of Disliking:
51. The Widow’s Walk, Robert Barclay
52. I Found You, Lisa Jewell