I’ve been reading a lot lately. Cold weather, early nightfall, and heavy thoughts all bring me back to books in a sort of unstructured, self-lead bibliotherapy.
A handful of Rose’s friends and relatives have formed a little informal book group based on this conceit — how reading can be a sort of therapy. So far we’ve read Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, by Haruki Murakami — a novel explicitly about loss and the numbness it can bring. I liked that book well enough, and found it relevant, though it didn’t exactly leave me deeply or personally affected, and so I do not include here as an official recommendation.
Instead, I’ll just leave this little list of recent recommendations for those looking for distraction, inspiration, and/or escape.
As I think about these six books, I realize they are all elegies, in a way, and though I did not seek them out as such, each one is largely about loss in one form or another. Just so, they are also about what is on the other side of absence — be it hope or rebirth or wisdom, or maybe just simply change, with no particular positive or negative value attached. I guess you could say all books boil down to that, as does time, and life itself. . . nothing can last forever-ever.
Anyway, here we go:
1. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
This is one of the best books I have ever read, with arguably the loveliest title. I got to correspond a little bit with Tony when I worked at Orion, and I knew he was a gifted writer and super nice guy, but here he parlays his impressive non-fiction and short story skills into something rare and shining. The novel is set during World War II and follows a handful of characters on either side of the fight — most essentially a blind French girl and reluctant German boy Nazi. It’s beautifully written, of course, and somehow manages to maintain a state of near constant suspense without exactly being stressful. This is war and there is tragedy and despair — but oh, there is so much curiosity in this book, so much beauty and wonder, hope and resilience. So many different ways to experience the world. I could, and do, recommend this book to anyone who likes to read — it’s luminous.
2. Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Punk icon Patti Smith is an artist in the truest, most holistic and systemic sense of the word. Her soul runs deep with it, and she effortlessly weaves between visual, musical, and written mediums. This memoir looks at a deeply formative sliver of her fiercely interesting and ever-evolving life — a period in the late 1960s when she first arrived in New York in her early 20s, met her creative soulmate Robert Mapplethorpe, and began exploring her own Bohemian heart. The city, the era, and her youth are vivid, crackling with the energies of new movements and old aesthetics. Though she speaks of run-ins with Janis and Dylan and Warhol, her prose and recollections are never pretentious, only fascinating. I’m looking forward to reading her newest memoir, M Train.
Intrigued? Listen to her interview with Terry Gross here.
3. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
Wolf Hall is a beast, but a dazzling one. I do not recommend this book to just anyone — likely only those who have a special appreciation for historical fiction, mind-boggling attention to detail, or have a particular shine for Tudor-era politics will solider through all 500-plus pages. But man, Ms. Mantel can, and does, turn descriptions about anything — seriously — baking bread, public execution, and book-keeping — into poetry. The book doesn’t have a whole lot of urgent action, but her sentences are so gorgeous, and her focus and insight into the mind of unlikely powerhouse Thomas Cromwell so acute, that the very construction of this book is so impressive it’s almost baffling.
4. The Sandman (Omnibus volumes I and II), by Neil Gaiman
EPIC. That is the word for this vast graphic novel series, and one of the greatest comic books ever. Joseph Campbell could write a book about this hero’s quest, and educated readers will be delighted by hundreds of literary, historical, pop culture, folk, and mythological references and guest appearances. Shakespeare pops up, as do Lucifer, Loki, Batman, Eurydice, and about a million other familiar faces. Titular character Dream looks like an ageless Robert Smith and is having an identity crisis of sorts. He’s brother to Death (one of the most awesome characters ever written), Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destruction, who together influence in various ways the hearts and minds of humanity.
I could never summarize what happens in a single paragraph, but believe me, the mind of Neil Gaiman is a dark, rich, and fascinating place. It isn’t an easy place to visit — often violent and sometimes seemingly tangential. This was a journey I questioned along the way, but as disparate threads gathered and braided into crescendo, I’m not exaggerating when I say it actually changed a small but fundamental piece of how I view both the world, and death. Dream’s purpose, life, and ultimate fate meant a great deal to me, and I look forward to re-reading the series every few years. Joseph Gordon-Levitt has the film rights to the story and he better. not. mess. it. up.
5. The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro
I haven’t read any other Ishiguro yet, so I can’t speak as to how Giant ranks among his other books (The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go) on much different subjects — but this one is as much a mood as it is a story. A literal and figurative mist has settled over crumbling post-Roman Britannia, leaving its inhabitants to fumble in a haze of melancholic amnesia. Beatrice and Axl are an older couple on quest they don’t quite understand, pulled along by factors they cannot quite remember. The book is secretive and allegorical, and sometimes a little frustrating as such, but it does make you think about what it means to forget and to remember.
6. A Grief Observed, by C.S. Lewis
This slim book is a seminal and comforting read for those who have experienced great loss. It is a simple, but at times profound observance of a great thinker and writer’s active experience of grief in real time. It’s essentially a cleaned up version of Lewis’s journal chronicling his wandering, sometimes disparate thoughts in the weeks and months after the death of his beloved wife, Joy. Its familiarity reminds us that grief is at once both deeply personal, and universal.