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My Favourite Books of 2017

The Ice Palace by Tarjei Vesaas

“Promise in deepest snow from Siss to Unn:

I promise to think about no one but you.”

This book was recommended to me by a cab driver who, with an enthusiasm that was a pleasure to witness, remarked that it should be the most famous novel in the world. And it is indeed a small masterpiece worthy of far more fame than it currently enjoys. Written in luminous, lyrical prose, this story relays the tale of two girls, Siss and Unn, who together spend an evening so profound that when Unn suddenly and inexplicably disappears, Siss’s universe collapses. The writing is eerie in its beauty — Versaas, with a stunning economy of language, places you in the cold, raw scenery of a Norwegian late autumn. His vivid descriptions of place, which run throughout the entirety of the novel, expose the loneliness of knowing just how indifferent our landscape is to the incursions and sufferings of human life.

The Book of Emma Reyes by Emma Reyes

“A child of 5 who leads a normal life wouldn’t be able to recount his childhood with this level of accuracy. But we, Helena and I, remember it as if it were today, and I can’t explain why.”

Emma Reyes was abandoned by her mother; left, as a six or seven year old, in the Colombian countryside. She grew up in a Bogota convent, where she worked long, arduous days under the cruel oversight of Catholic nuns. After her escape from the convent in her late teens, Emma made her way to Argentina. From there, she travelled to Paraguay, Uruguay, the United States, Mexico, Italy, and Israel. She won a scholarship to study painting in Paris; she paid her way to the French capital by offering to paint the ship as it sailed. In Paris, she became part of the cultural elite, befriending Frida Kahlo, Diego Riviera, Jean-Paul Sartre, and many others. When a friend, the critic and historian Germán Arciniegas, suggested to her that she write her remarkable life story, she refused; instead, she wrote him letters. He was so impressed with them, the story goes, that he shared them with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who called Emma, encouraging her to keep writing. This breach of confidence infuriated Emma, who didn’t write him another letter for more than two decades. This book is a collection of Emma’s letters – 23 of them – in which she describes her childhood (a childhood that would have broken most) with a childlike and poetically dispassionate tone that is simply astonishing. It’s the unlikelihood of this book that truly moves me; without any formal education – Emma only learned how to read and write in her late teens – she managed to give us a stunning work of art. If only she had written more.

Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

“…the greatest source of misery in the world, the greatest cause of anguish and hatred and sadness and death, was neither disease nor race nor religion. It was hope.”

Outrageously funny, this is the story of Solomon Kugel, an ordinary man who brings his wife, young son, and mother to the nondescript town of Stockton, in upstate New York. Hoping to start afresh, his plans for a new beginning are quickly derailed by a fusion of factors: first, his dementia-suffering mother is convinced — even though she was born and raised in New York — of having experienced the Holocaust; second, Kugel discovers that an intruder has taken up residence in his attic — a rude, fowl woman who might just be one of history’s most famous victims of the Holocaust; and third, an arsonist is running wild, on a mission to burn every house in the town. The title of this book (“Hope: A Tragedy”) is, you’ll learn as soon as you start reading, a reference to the philosophy of Professor Jove, psychologist to Solomon Kugel. It isn’t the capricious nature of life or misfortune or cruelty that is at the root of all human suffering, Professor Jove extolls to his patient. The genesis of human misery is, he says, hope. The natural human instinct to believe that a better life is out there, ready for the taking. Abandon all hope of being better, or making the world a more tolerable place to live in, and you’ll rest blissfully in mediocrity for the rest of your life. According to this view, then, someone like Hitler becomes an optimist (“hope is irrational…when someone rises up and promises that things are going to be better, run. Hide. Pessimists don’t build gas chambers.”). So yes, while this is perhaps one of the darkest, most cynical stories out there, underneath it all is a moving tale of an ordinary man trying to get through an unremarkable life reasonably unscathed. And: I am convinced that Shalom Auslander is the illegitimate love child of Franz Kafka and Philip Roth.  

Suddenly, A Knock On The Door by Etgar Keret

“Don’t you go and dump reality on us like a garbage truck.”

Etgar Keret is one of my favourite discoveries of 2017. It’s extraordinary how he manages to create such fantastical, moving stories with the use of simple and straight language. In this collection of stories, Keret presents daily life as a dangeous, complicated production that is full of longing. I was spell-bound by nearly every story in the book, though a couple moved me to tears: in one, Keret takes on the third person voice to describe a woman whose every partner has committed suicide. The last line of this story, in which Keret suddenly switches the narrative voice, totally slayed me; in another, Keret introduces us to a talking fish whose desperately lonely owner will stop at nothing to keep his company. Every single story in this collection, stripped down to its essence, is an exploration into the chaos of our inner lives (Keret is particularly extraordinary when describing the anxieties of childhood). I truly loved this book; it is a tremendous illumination of the darkness, and fear, that shadows every human existence.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever way one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, its like had been felt, would be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated…”

The long awaited first novel by George Saunders, the master of the short story, didn’t leave my mind for months on end. I still talk about it to anyone who will listen. In fact, this book engenders such strong feelings in its readers that a woman, upon seeing the book clutched in my hand, hung up her phone – mid conversation – and shouted at me across the street: “Did you LOVE it?!”. At the time the book is set – 1862, the first year of the American Civil War – papers reported that Abraham Lincoln, upon losing his eleven-year-old son to typhoid, entered the Georgetown Cemetery crypt and held his body. From this seed of historical truth, Saunders builds an extraordinarily moving story narrated by a chorus of voices. The tale unfolds in a graveyard over the course of one night – the night that Willie Lincoln dies. As young Lincoln enters the graveyard, we are introduced to a host of characters, all recently dead, but who have not yet accepted the sad fact, hence why they’re in a “bardo” — the Tibetan version of purgatory. In their back and forth conversations, Saunders’s cast of characters reminisce about their lives and the loved ones that filled them. In nearly every interaction there is a sense of longing for what was lost and regret for how it was all left behind. Every character, it seems to me, feels like he or she could have done it all a little bit better (don’t well all?). And it is this longing for a different legacy – the gap between what they achieved and what they would have liked to achieve – that forever keeps them in the “bardo,” that space between death and the afterlife. In the end, though, you are left with the belief that we all do the best we can with what we have at the time — a simple message, teeming with empathy, which George Saunders stunningly delivers. This is a book I will reread for years to come, and probably never stop talking about.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

“But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure you will never be.” 

This was a reread for me this year — my third time reading this book, each time in one sitting. “Dept. of Speculation” is a stunning and very clever portrait of a marriage. Structurally reminiscent of “Speedboat,” Renata Adler’s immense novel on a woman’s coming of age in New York City, “Dept. of Speculation,” in a similar vein, introduces us to a woman’s insanely smart, profound and funny meditations on intimacy, trust, belief and, more broadly, the friction between domestic life and the demands of art. (“My plan was to never get married. I was going to be an art monster instead. Women almost never become art monsters because art monsters only concern themselves with art, never mundane things. Nabokov didn’t even fold his own umbrella. Vera licked his stamps for him.”). This is a beguiling, mesmerising book – a truly remarkable achievement from beginning to end. Every reading of it has unearthed new meaning and deep emotional insight. 

The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret

“The writer is neither saint nor tzaddik nor prophet standing at the gate; he’s just another sinner who has a somewhat sharper awareness and uses slightly more precise language to describe the inconceivable reality of our world.” 

Another Keret masterpiece. The “seven good years” refers to the seven years between the birth of Keret’s son, Lev, and the death of his father – a precious time during which he was both a son and a father. Every little essay in this memoir is totally brilliant, each teeming with Keret’s characteristic combination of the fantastical and the ordinary. Full of irrepressible humour, Keret writes beautifully about love, through a moving essay on how his parents met; perspective, in the beautiful story of how his father approaches a death-sentence type of cancer; and grief, in his telling of how the three Keret siblings – all extremely different – come together to grieve for their recently departed father. This is Keret’s only non-fiction book, written in English (not Hebrew), and apparently not published in his home country (Israel). I tore through this book in one evening, not able to sleep until I turned over its final page. A wonderful, life-affirming read. 

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“I think… if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.” 

While it took me about eight months to finish, I enjoyed every stage of this gargantuan novel of all novels (even Tolstoy’s ruminations on nineteenth century Russian agricultural policy). I found Tolstoy’s ability to get inside anyone’s head quite extraordinary (even, for a good twenty pages, that of a dog), and a real practice of the now well-known benefit of reading literary fiction: the enhancement of empathy – that prized ability to fully embody another being’s experience. I approached “Anna Karenina” as a book about love, though it becomes obvious very quickly that it is about so much more: chance, fate, and human powerlessness in the face of the capricious nature of life. While it was tempting to get sucked into the love between Anna and Vronsky, I was actually most drawn to Dolly and Stiva’s relationship – Anna and Vronsky are so suffocated by their love for each other that it eventually destroys them, and Kitty and Levin are sickly sweet and traditional. But Dolly and Stiva are a true portrait of coupledom: imperfect, often drowned by the obligations of domestic life, yet ultimately accepting of the chaos that inheres a family unit.

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

“Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.” 

There is an extraordinary moment in My Name Is Lucy Barton when a famous writer tells the eponymous heroine: “You will have only one story… You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You will have only one.” This powerful and deeply affecting novel takes place in a hospital room over five days in the 1980s. In the hospital room is Lucy Barton, who is visited by her estranged mother after she suffers complications from what should have been a straight forward surgery. The two begin gossiping about people from Lucy’s childhood in the town of Amgash, Illinois, though this harmless gossip then turns to memories of Lucy’s troubled and deprived upbringing. What follows is Lucy’s attempt to write her own story, despite the unreliability of memory and the overwhelming force of collective denial. I love Strout’s lack of sentimentality and her outright acceptance of the idea that memory, and therefore identity, is unsteady, because what do we really know? And who are we but only a story we write from fleeting — almost destructible — recollections?

Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong

“What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers. That the reasons we can care for one another can have nothing to do with the person cared for. That it has only to do with who we were around that person—what we felt about that person.” 

It’s a very pleasing thing to read a novel before it is released into the world; not much is more satisfying to a book lover than getting dibs on something not very many people have yet read. So I’m quite greedy when it comes to scoring reading copies: I will take as many as I can. Very few, however, are as magical as “Goodbye, Vitamin,” Rachel Khong’s exceptional debut novel. Ruth’s life is falling apart: Joel, her ex-fiance, broke it off to be with another woman; her career as a sonographer is unsatisfying (she dropped out of medical school to be with aforementioned ex-fiance); and, once she arrives home for Christmas, her mother asks her to stay and help care for her Alzheimer’s-stricken father. What follows is a magical, darkly comic, and truly heartfelt diary-like novel that chronicles Ruth’s life throughout her time at home with her family. Particularly moving are the passages where Ruth reads from a diary her father kept while she was growing up: “Today was my birthday, and you asked me how old I was. When I told you 35 you seemed stunned. You asked me if I started at 1. Then you asked: When do we die?” I will reread this book until Rachel’s next gem comes out.

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

“Memory, he added in a postscript, often strikes me as a kind of a dumbness. It makes one’s head heavy and giddy, as if one were not looking back down the receding perspectives of time but rather down from a great height, from one of those towers whose tops are lost to view in the clouds.” 

I have a habit of reading this book at least once a year. Though for reasons I struggle to understand, no reading of it has had such a deep impact as this year’s. “The Emigrants,” Sebald’s most famous novel, documents the lives of four twentieth century Jewish emigres — Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambros Adelwarth, and Max Ferber. With precise and dreamlike prose, Sebald creates a framework for thinking about memory; questioning, I think, the extent to which it is possible for a human being to live with the memory of tremendous pain and suffering. This book seeps into your skin; it lingers far past its last page and, while in bits darkly comic, it is enormously sad.

Cory Taylor on dying with honesty

My second child was born last May, so 2016 was not particularly bookish. I did, however, read many short novels and memoirs, many of which have been the most extraordinary books I’ve come across. One that stands out is “Dying,” by Cory Taylor. Just before her 50th birthday, the Australian novelist was diagnosed with Stage 4 Melanoma. Her memoir, short but dense, is a human, matter-of-fact and haunting piece of writing. With clear and direct prose, Taylor provides tremendous lessons for the living. Her insight on our unhealthy obsession with the “unlived” life, for example, is slaying:

“The problem with reverie is that you always assume you know how the unlived life turns out. And it is always a better version of the life you’ve actually lived. The other life is more significant and more purposeful. It is impossibly free of setbacks and mishaps.”

This book is a phenomenal, bracing meditation on terminal illness; Taylor’s electrifying and dispassionate prose lingers in the body and mind, gifting us a salve against the dread of our own impermanence.

You can pair this book with “Staring at the Sun,” Irvin Yalom’s extraordinary and uplifting philosophical exploration of our relationship to our feared mortality; and this heart-expanding and honest conversation between Cory herself and Richard Fidler.

Reading ourselves awake

Image via Unsplash/Karim Ghantous

 

When I was 15 years old, my family moved from Venezuela to the United States, where I was immediately thrown into the American school system. I started my sophomore year in high school with passable English, spent a few months as an ESOL student, and struggled through the Harry Potter series. In the middle of the 10th grade, my English teacher assigned the most important task of the course: an analytical paper on a classic novel of our choice. Not knowing what constituted a “classic,” I Googled it. The first result was Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. I had all my winter break to read it.

Armed with an English-to-Spanish dictionary, I started reading. The endeavour lasted two months, but I fell deeply, irrevocably in love with Jane. And while my rather limited command of the English language slowed my progress, and surely left much meaning in the novel uncovered, I could deeply relate to the novel’s namesake: her childhood, her love for Edward Rochester, and above all her struggle to develop both her moral and spiritual sensibilities. I found the inconsistency in Jane’s ideas and observations—her constant back and forth—strangely comforting. I was insecure, perennially unsure what to make of the world and my place within it. Suddenly, I was understood.

It was through this imposed reading of Jane Eyre that I began to see how literature can both live and give life. Books were not a form of escape, but rather a way through which I could plunge deeper into a human experience I was struggling to participate in and understand. I needed reading to do something of consequence to my soul.

Franz Kafka expressed a similar sentiment in a moving letter to a childhood friend:

“I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.”

It’s in this way—books as axes that pick at our unconscious ways of being—that I think reading can be most powerful. Stepping into worlds of make-believe can awaken us from the deadening effects of habit. Reading can help us notice aspects of our internal and external experiences that the humdrum routine of life has silenced or numbed, like melancholy, frustration or disappointment in love. When we see these dimensions in somebody else, we awaken to them within ourselves.

Marcel Proust, known to have been a gluttonous reader, wrote:

“Reading is at the threshold of our inner life; it can lead us into that life but cannot constitute it. What is needed, therefore, is an intervention that occurs deep within ourselves while coming from someone else, the impulse of another mind that we receive in the bosom of solitude.”

My own hope is that through reading we can enkindle both curiosity and compassion for the inner workings of our being, as Proust suggests. As humans, we are wired to feel utterly alone in our experiences of inner turmoil. I suppose it is because of this loneliness that we often attempt to elude inner pain and discomfort. A book though, acting as a mirror to our inner workings, can foil our caper. I often find myself bewildered when another mind stirs me into awareness, sharpening into focus what I am thinking and feeling with such accuracy that it shrinks my common experience of loneliness and freakishness. Writers simultaneously connect us with our own uniqueness and help us feel like normal human beings trying, and often floundering, to capture meaning when it is most elusive.

A few years ago, I began to keep a “commonplace book,” a vault of the observations and ideas that you collect throughout your life of reading, thinking and listening. Michel de Montaigne, Marcus Aurelius, Lewis Carroll, HL Mencken and many others kept one. There are several versions of this practice today—mine is notecard based. Soon after I finish a book, I copy, on a notecard, whichever bits I want to revisit in the future. I then file the notecard thematically (love, loss, grief, friendship etc.) in a massive box.

The point of the exercise is to retrieve the notecards at appropriate times later in life, like when you lose someone you love, split up, lose your job or any of the other countless human travails we experience. It’s an emotional toolbox that serves as a lifeline for the times that test us, and as a never-ending, unbreakable connection to the wondrous and immortal life of books.

When I became a mother, I began to obsess about sudden personal catastrophe. The frighteningly labile, fragile nature of life. As soon as my son was born, I nursed the painful idea of losing him. And I felt the loss as if it was real: during my first few months as a mother, I was blown apart. This imagined loss arrived imbued with an unendurable story: that if anything was to ever happen to my child, it would be personal. That it would happen to him because he was mine. Because it was me. Somewhere along the way, I’d held onto the story that tragedy is individualised, not random, and that it is dictated by an intangible force over which I wielded no control. This story altered the nature of the imagined experience, transforming it from an uncomfortable ‘could be’ to an overpowering tale that left me frozen on my own planet of imagined grief while the universe continued in ceaseless motion.

I turned to my commonplace book. While leafing through the notecards, I found a phrase I had read, re-written and filed:

“No eye was on the sparrow. No eye was watching me.”

I came across this phrase within the pages of The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir recounting the year following the sudden death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. In the bit of the book where this quotation comes from, Didion rejects the famous hymn “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” which extolls that a higher being is closely observing each and every living thing on the planet, even a bird as tiny as a sparrow.

Her form of belief is geological, not religious: human beings, she proposes, are as vulnerable to tragedy as the blue orb we live on. “I found earthquakes, even when I was in them, deeply satisfying,” she writes, “abruptly revealed evidence of the scheme in action.” Natural disasters attest to the randomness of tragedy. Misfortune is not about you, it is not preordained because you felt yourself not good enough. It is indiscriminate in the way a devastating earthquake is. The pain is therefore transformed, if not in degree then in kind: the terrifying possibility of losing your child would not be your fault. This story, I feel, is one I can better live with.

We can connect with books on a spiritual, scholarly, moral and emotional level. Some books never become irrelevant because they change as we change. They have this magical ability to metamorphose into what we need at just about every stage of our lives. In some way or another, they are always us and we are always them.


I originally wrote this piece for Dumbo Feather Magazine

My Desert Island Library

Illustration by Jane Mount, from Ideal Bookshelf https://www.idealbookshelf.com/

 

Cast ashore on the proverbial desert island, I’d for sure need a bookshelf. These are the books I can read and re-read over and over again (in no particular order):

Stoner by John Williams

The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

M Train by Patti Smith

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

The Walk by Robert Walser

The Complete Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov

The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor by Flannery O’Connor

Dubliners by James Joyce

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Speedboat by Renata Adler

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

The Complete Stories by Franz Kafka

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

(Subject to change, always).

 

“I wish now that I had let him buy me a tuxedo, that I had let him be a dad”: Steve Martin on childhood pain, art, and being a son

Feeling slightly uninspired and unsure of what to read next, I’ve been spending the last few days re-reading bits from books I delved into many years ago. I underline and earmark all of my books to death, so it’s easy to notice what I was particularly moved by. Steve Martin’s memoir, “Born Standing Up,” is truly tremendous. Here, Martin chronicles his early life and his rise to stardom with honesty and sharp wit, making the book an absolute joy to read. Heartbreaking and funny, this is a true inside look into not only the often lonely life of a comedian, but also a primer on what it’s like to operate as a creative.

While I do tend to re-write lines from books I’ve read, I had, in the fog of having babies and moving countries, forgotten so much of this book. I was especially moved his re-telling of painful childhood experiences, and the role they play in shaping our art:

“…My father muttered something to me, and I responded with a mumbled “What”. He shouted, “You heard me,” thundered up from his chair, pulled his belt out of its loops, and inflicted a beating that seemed never to end. I curled my arms around my body as he stood over me like a titan and delivered the blows. This was the only incident of its kind in our family. My father was never physically abusive toward my mother or sister and he was never again physically extreme with me. However, this beating and his worsening tendency to rages directed at my mother – which I heard in fright through the thin walls of our home – made me resolve, with icy determination, that only the most formal relationship would exist between my father and me, and for perhaps thirty years, neither he nor I did anything to repair the rift.

The rest of my childhood, we hardly spoke; there was little he said to me that was not critical, and there was little I said back that was not terse or mumbled. When I graduated from high school, he offered to buy me a tuxedo. I refused because I had learned from him to reject all aid and assistance; he detested extravagance and pleaded with us not to give him gifts. I felt, through a convoluted logic, that in my refusal, I was being a good son. I wish now that I had let him buy me a tuxedo, that I had let him be a dad. Having cut myself off from him, and by association the rest of the family, I was incurring psychological debts that would come due years later in the guise of romantic misconnections and a wrongheaded quest for solitude.

I have heard it said that a complicated childhood can lead to a life in the arts. I tell you this story of my father and me to let you know I am qualified to be a comedian.”

My 16 Favourite Books of 2016

Darkness Visible by William Styron

Dying: A Memoir by Cory Taylor

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Dubliners by James Joyce

Grief Is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

Stoner by John Edward Williams

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan

Levels of Life by Julian Barnes

The Tall Man by Chloe Hooper

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit

M Train by Patti Smith

Joan Didion on self-respect

joandidion

From her seminal 1961 Vogue essay on self-respect (also found in her sublime collection of meditations, “Slouching Towards Bethlehem“), Joan Didion expounds upon the true meaning of knowing who you are (failures and all):

“The dismal fact is that self-respect has nothing to do with the approval of others—who are, after all, deceived easily enough; has nothing to do with reputation—which, as Rhett Butler told Scarlett O’Hara, is something that people with courage can do without.

To do without self-respect, on the other hand, is to be an unwilling audience of one to an interminable home movie that documents one’s failings, both real and imagined, with fresh footage spliced in for each screening. There’s the glass you broke in anger, there’s the hurt on X’s face; watch now, this next scene, the night Y came back from Houston, see how you muff this one. To live without self-respect is to lie awake some night, beyond the reach of warm milk, phenobarbital, and the sleeping hand on the coverlet, counting up the sins of commission and omission, the trusts betrayed, the promises subtly broken, the gifts irrevocably wasted through sloth or cowardice or carelessness. However long we post- pone it, we eventually lie down alone in that notoriously un- comfortable bed, the one we make ourselves. Whether or not we sleep in it depends, of course, on whether or not we respect ourselves.”

Five Brilliant Children’s Books With Girl Protagonists

rosiereverereading
Rosie Revere, Engineer

 

I love reading with my two year old, Leo, all the time. Though as time has gone on, I’ve found it incredibly difficult to find great, inspiring books with female characters who aren’t princesses who somehow fall in the safe, strong arms of a brave knight. Many of our favourite books are centred around male heroes (The Incredible Book Eating Boy, Iggy Peck, Architect, Where The Wild Things Are, Stuck), though over time I have found a few (too few) brilliant books with leading female characters. This is an actual issue:

“Despite what can seem like a profusion of heroines in kids’ books, girls are still underrepresented in children’s literature. A 2011 study of almost 6,000 children’s books published between 1900 and 2000 showed that only 31 percent had female central characters. … More insidiously, children’s books with female protagonists sometimes celebrate their heroine to a fault. Isn’t it amazing that a girl did these things, they seem to say—implying that these heroines are a freakish exception to their gender, not an inspiration for readers to follow.”

While they haven’t been easy to find (certainly not as easy as finding great books with male protagonists), here are a few of our favourites:

Rosie Revere, Engineer by Andrea Beattie:

The beautiful and heartening story of Rosie Revere – a shy, quiet girl by day who turns into a dazzling inventor of all sorts of machinery by night. She dreams of becoming an engineer, and, throughout the story, faces ridicule when she fails in her effort to build a cheese-powered helicopter (it crashes). Her great-great-aunt Rose though, herself an engineer who built airplanes during WWII, re-assures her that before her helicopter crashed, it flew:

“It crashed. That is true.
But first it did just what it needed to do.
Before it crashed, Rosie…
before that…
it flew!
Your brilliant first flop was a raging success!
Come on, let’s get busy and on to the next!”

This is a stunning tale that not only breaks gender stereotypes, but also drives forward a helpful and wise message about the value of failure.

I Am Amelia Earhart by Brad Meltzer:

From the collection Ordinary People Change the World comes “I Am Amelia Earhart,” the tremendously invigorating and courageous story of Amelia Earhart, the famous aviation pioneer who, amongst her many record breaking ventures, became the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. This short biographical book starts with Earhart’s childhood, during which her parents encouraged her to “wear dresses and play with dolls,” and discouraged her from “unladylike adventures.” She ignores them though, and moves on to build her own flying contraptions in her backyard. At twenty-three, she meets the aviation pioneer Frank Hawks, who takes her on her first flight. From then on, she decides she wants to fly on her own. In between odd and casual jobs, she buys herself a small airplane and begins training. Though her talent is earned, not given:

“But here’s my secret: I wasn’t a natural. I wasn’t the best pilot. I just worked harder than anyone else.”

The rest of the book chronicles Earhart’s record breaking career, during which she faced endless challenge from people who told her she’d never be able to achieve what she eventually did. Such a gorgeous, informative and entertaining read.

The Heart and the Bottle by Oliver Jeffers:

“A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children,” extolled C.S. Lewis, “is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” This has never rung truer as I read (first to my son) and then re-read (to myself, countless times), Oliver Jeffers’ stunning and tender illustrated story of what happens when we drown our most painful emotions. In this beautiful book, a little girl loses her curiosity when she encloses her heart in a bottle after the loss of her father, who had, when alive, read to her all sorts of fantastic books about the wonders of the world. As an adult, she re-discovers her wonder when she meets a little girl, who knows how to get her heart out of the bottle. She faces her pain and her curiosity returns. This is a sublime book.

The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds:

At the end of art class, Vashti sits at her desk staring at a blank sheet of paper, without any idea of what to draw. Her art teacher just asks her to make a mark – any mark – on the paper and observe where it leads. She makes one single dot, after which her teacher asks her to sign the paper. The next day, Vashti finds that her teacher has framed the piece of art, which inspires Vashti to become an artist. Towards the end, Vashti herself is faced with a little boy who doesn’t know how to draw. She asks him to make a mark and see where it takes him, like her previous teacher asked of her. He draws a squiggly line and Vashti asks him to “sign it.” A beautiful fable of self-discovery, serendipity and the creative spirit.

The Girl and the Bicycle by Mark Pett:

A story with such a big heart. Wordless (so a true picture book in the literal sense), “The Girl and the Bicycle” is a fable about a little girl who covets a new, shiny bicycle. She inspects her piggy bank to find that she doesn’t have enough money to purchase it, so she starts knocking on neighbours’ doors, offering to do their yard-work. Every neighbour other than an old lady rejects her offer. The old woman and the girl begin to work together, developing a heartening friendship along the way. When the girl earns enough money, she runs to back to the shop but finds that the bicycle is gone. She decides to buy her younger brother a tricycle instead. Many lessons are imbued in this story – the value of generosity being the most obvious – but it’s the type of book that reveals more and more with every reading of it.


P.S.: Know any great children’s books with female protagonists? Let me know!

P.P.S: Want to check out what I’m reading with my son? Have a look through his bookshelf.

My 15 Favourite Books of 2015

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Jennifer Egan’s Illustrated Bookshelf

 

Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

A beautiful memoir from the guitarist of the epic and pioneering band, Sleater-Kinney. A true deviation from the regular rock ‘n roll story of destruction, this book is a tale of losing, and then finding yourself, in music.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

A phenomenal, illuminating read, even if you’re not into poetry. In this collection of ten letters, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke advises a nineteen year old fan on love, truth and how to experience the world around you. Some of my favourite bits:

On loving books:

“A world will come over you, the happiness, the abundance, the incomprehensible immensity of a world. Live a while in these books, learn from them what seems to you worth learning, but above all love them. This love will be repaid you a thousand and a thousand times, and however your life may turn, — it will, I am certain of it, run through the fabric of your growth as one of the most important threads among all the threads of your experiences, disappointments and joys.”

On the benefits of living with mystery:

“…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”

How to Be Alone by Sara Maitland

An interesting and  illuminating cultural look at loneliness. Part of the School of Life’s stunning “toolkit for life” series, British author Sara Maitland writes on the benefits of going solo. This book is an important take down of one of society’s most unhelpful stories: that people who choose to be alone are doomed to a life full of misery. Through this book I also discovered other writers I fell in love with, particularly Alice Koller, who penned this gem: “Being solitary is being alone well: being luxuriously immersed in doing things of your own choice, aware of the fullness of your own presence rather than the absence of others.” 

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

Tore through this in a few hours. So, so good. A few essays are absolutely laugh out loud hilarious (particularly one involving a wild and demented goose), and others are profound in that way only Allie Brosh can be (her pieces on depression represent one of the most human views on the topic I’ve ever encountered). Honestly, this book is perfect.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

A stunningly written collection of meditations on a rich and wide array of topics, from John Wayne, to growing up in California, Joan Baez, Hollywood and the hippies of Haight-Ashbury. I enjoyed every essay more than I thought I would, due probably to Didion’s uncanny ability to make any topic interesting. Two particular pieces though stood out for me, and have been struggling to get them out of my mind since I finished the book: On Keeping A Notebook (a beautiful reflection on the benefits of writing things down) and On Self-Respect (a brave, illuminating essay on the importance of knowing who you are).

Strange Pilgrims by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Already having been a huge fan of Marquez, I was ecstatic when I found a used copy of a slim yet sublime collection of his short stories. While rummaging through tomes at a local used book stall, I stumbled upon this little volume I knew nothing of, began to read and was naturally hooked from the very first sentence. Titled Strange Pilgrims because of the long, wayward method in which the stories came to life, in this collection you’ll find fables of love, death, loneliness and the nagging power of the past.

How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts At an Answer by Sarah Bakewell

The question of “how to live” completely obsessed Renaissance writers, but no one tackled it with such brilliance as Michel de Montaigne, a government worker, nobleman, and winegrower who lived in southwestern France from 1533 to 1592. He is considered the creator of the essay – the art of self-reflection on paper. And in the twenty years that he wrote his famous “essays” (107 of them), Montaigne covered everything from the existential to the mundane: how to endure the loss of a loved one, the benefits of thumbs, how to get along with people, how to deal with violence, how to dress. In this biography, writer and philosophy scholar Sarah Bakewell chronicles Montaigne’s life through the answering of one question: how do you live? A truly enlightening, mind-expanding read on not just the man’s life, but on death and the art of living.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

By far the best book of practical philosophy I have ever encountered, I’ve picked it up countless of times since I first read it over a year ago.Written by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor from 161 to 180 AD, Meditations” is a collection his private thoughts and ideas on how to be present, humble, and self-disciplined. Shelved in “books for life.” 

Staring at the Sun by Irvin D. Yalom

An encouraging and compassionate approach to our mortality. While it’s marketed as a primer on how to deal with death anxiety, to me this work is much more about how to live rather than how to die. It completely shifted my perspective on the choices we get to make every day: what we value, the stories we tell, how we spend our time. One question Yalom asks has never left my mind: If you were asked whether you would live your life all over again, would you? While the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death imbues us with life. 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Written in the only way Didion really knows how: hauntingly. This is a difficult book to get through, not because of the way in which it is written (it is a joy to travel through her sentences), but rather because of its topic. Written after her husband’s sudden death, The Year of Magical Thinking is Didion’s memoir recounting how she handled the loss of her partner. It is an exceptional meditation on grief (a topic, Didion notes, strangely absent in literature), love and the vicissitudes of fortune. One reviewer said he couldn’t imagine dying without this book. That is exactly how I feel.

The Art of Stillness by Pico Iyer

Finished this slim yet meaningful book in one sitting. Pico Iyer, the celebrated travel writer, extolls on the benefits of stillness, presence and finding the time to reflect on our human experience. I have yet to find a better description of stillness and it’s role in creating a rich and meaningful life: “To me, the point of sitting still is that it helps you to see through the very idea of pushing forward; indeed, it strips you of yourself, as of a coat of armour, by leading you into a place where you’re defined by something larger. If it does have benefits, they lie within some invisible account with a high interest rate, but very long-term yields, to be drawn upon at that moment, surely inevitable, when a doctor walks into your room, shaking his head, or another car veers in front of yours, and all you have to draw upon is what you’ve collected in your deeper moments.” 

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh

This book is tremendous. A weighty tome (nearly 800 pages), it’s the truest inside look into the heart and mind of an artist. In his letters to his younger brother Theo (who supported Vincent throughout his entire life as a painter), Van Gogh reveals his views on love, art, creativity and what it means to be not only a good artist, but a good human being. What I found most astounding was just how hard Van Gogh worked to develop his talent as an artist. While he did seem to have a natural ability to observe the world that lay before him (his descriptions of scenery are as almost vivid as his paintings), Van Gogh spent years learning the techniques of both drawing and painting, becoming better as time passed. It wasn’t until he moved to the South of France, quite late in his short but prolific career (and where he was influenced by the already growing Impressionist movement), when he began to produce the paintings we know him for today.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin

A brilliant, touching and unforgettable memoir by one of the world’s most loved comedians. This book is so tremendous. Martin chronicles his early life and his rise to stardom with honesty and sharp wit, making the book an absolute joy to read. Heartbreaking and funny, this book is an inside look into not only the life of a comedian, but also a primer on life as a creative.

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

A phenomenal novel about art, motherhood, marriage and loss. You will feel like you’ll never encounter anything like it again.

On The Shortness of Life by Seneca

The simplest, most life-altering message I have ever come across: life is long if you know how to use it. In the Roman philosopher’s 2,000 year old mind stretching meditation on time you’ll find a profound and essential message:  

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements if it were all well invested. But when it is wasted in heedless luxury and spent on no good activity, we are forced at last by death’s final constraint to realise that it has passed away before we knew it was passing. So it is: we are not given a short life but we make it short, and we are not ill-supplied but wasteful of it.”


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Nora Ephron on the pleasures of reading.

“Reading is everything. Reading makes me feel I’ve accomplished something, learned something, become a better person. Reading makes me smarter. Reading gives me something to talk about later on. Reading is the unbelievably healthy way my attention deficit disorder medicates itself. Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real. Reading is grist. Reading is bliss.”