If the recent onslaught of snow has reminded you that you have yet to buy people presents this year, here’s a bunch of recommendations for the various characters in your life: the Environmentalist and Explorer, the Armchair / Literary Traveler, the Creative, the Foodie, and the History Buff. If you’re one of those people whose Christmas shopping is finished by September (I’m talking to you, mother), go ahead and celebrate by buying yourself a book. You deserve it.
Connect with me on Goodreads to see more of what I’m reading, and show me yours (books, that is).
For the Environmentalist and Explorer:
Encounters with the Archdruid by John McPhee
John McPhee’s book is my ideal piece of nonfiction writing, objectively telling all sides of a story with a narrative as entertaining and well-written as any great novel. In three parts, the author chronicles three separate journeys with David Brower, former executive director of the Sierra Club. McPhee incites lively debates and slowly reveals the entire picture of Brower’s life by pitting him against three foils to his environmentalism, and setting the characters in three wilderness regions in danger of being mined, developed, damned, and exploited for resources.
Ancient Futures: Learning from Ladakh by Helena Norberg-Hodge
I read this book in anticipation of a 2009 trip to Ladakh, where I spent six weeks living in villages and working on farms. In the 1970s, India opened the politically sensitive region (that borders both China and Pakistan) to development, and Norberg-Hodge was one of the first foreigners to spend a significant amount of time there. Over the next twenty years she witnessed the effects of conventional development and documented it in Ancient Futures. Although polarizing in her views, Norberg-Hodge’s book is an important investigation into how societies and communities change amidst development, raising questions about the notions of “progress” and challenging unexamined assumptions.
Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
What strikes me about Foer’s work is the way he arranges his writing, toying with and discarding the conventional structure of the novel. Even in this work of nonfiction, the author’s emphasis is on storytelling. His grandmother surviving the Holocaust, illegal nighttime excursions to locked poultry farms, and tours of pig slaughterhouses are only a few of the stories, and throughout it all the author balances straightforward, journalistic reporting of the facts, figures, and statistics of factory farming’s effects on health, the environment, and animals. This unique arrangement of writing makes Eating Animals not only readable, but digestible. It is a gruesome subject that most avoid altogether, but Foer shifts away from argumentative prose and toward an exploration of narratives that have no right or wrong answers.
Another notable read: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
For the Armchair / Literary Traveler:
Granta Issue 124: Travel
The Travel issue of UK-based literary journal Granta shows that there are as many different ways to travel as there are to write. This issue chronicles eighteen authors (four of whom are poets), plus four translators and two collections of photography that span the globe—taking you from Thailand to Nigeria and everywhere in between. No need to pack your bags or feel violated at security.
The Condé Nast Traveler Book of Unforgettable Journeys: Great Writers on Great Places Edited and Introduced by Klara Glowczewska
The breadth of places in this Conde Nast collection mirrors the wide array of writers, and the myriad ways of writing a travel essay. The best pieces capture the complexity and diversity of a place, as well as the feeling and the facts. Philip Gourevitch’s “Where the Wild Things Are” is the culminating piece of this collection, and arguably the best. The author describes his safari trip to a remote region of Tanzania with a combination of sights, smells, and sounds that fully immerses the reader in the experience. Boring travel writers focus too much on themselves, but Gourevitch depicts a range of characters that round out the narrative and become central to the success of the piece. The collection features writing by Pico Iyer, Russel Banks, Nicole Krauss, and Suketu Mehta, among others.
Whites by Norman Rush
The short stories in Norman Rush’s Whites range in perspective and style, offering a culturally and socially nuanced glimpse into life as ex-patriots in Botswana. Written similarly to Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” the story “Near Pala” is a dialogue-heavy account of four ex-patriots driving across Botswana–capturing the dichotomy of the bleeding-heart activist who seizes every opportunity to discuss what’s wrong with Africa, and the white man perpetuating broken systems that he benefits from. Rush’s stories rely on action to move the plot and reveal characters–displaced individuals who deal with issues larger than themselves, and largely out of their control.
Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje
Michael Ondaatje’s fictionalized memoir reads like the opulence and discord of The Great Gatsby set in Sri Lanka. The author mixes reflections of two trips to Sri Lanka with stories of his ancestors, recounted by others. The memoir pushes into fictional realms when Ondaatje recreates moments of his grandmother’s life with startling clarity and beauty. The author mixes photographs, poems, and entire passes of quotations to create a book that breaks boundaries of convention and structure.
For the Creative:
The War of Art by Steven Pressfield
Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art is a lengthy manifesto for creative beings; a how-to book for overcoming obstacles and pushing forward as a professional artist or writer. Written in short, punchy paragraphs, Pressfield doesn’t dance around issues; he attacks them like a warrior in the Greek myths he conjures throughout the book. His explorations of genius and creative inspiration tie in perfectly with the overarching advice: show up, do the work. The perfect book to dust off when writer’s block strikes.
For the Foodie:
Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites by Kate Christensen
The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious—and Perplexing—City by David Lebovitz
I read this in 2011, and still think about the way Lebovitz captures the complexity of life in a foreign country, marked by a humor and resilience that makes for a great narrator. A great book for people who love Paris, and an even greater book for people who hate the place.
For the History Buff:
News of a Kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Largely lacking in dialogue, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s News of a Kidnapping conveys the complexity of Columbia during the 1980s and 90s; a country where drug barons exercise almost as much power as the president, police clash with citizens, and both sides are suffering. A nonfiction account as complicated as Marquez’s novels, the author reconstructs the kidnappings through interviews and diaries, creating dynamic, well-rounded and memorable characters who reveal how dire situations can catalyze people to change (or not).
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
In the Heart of the Sea is both a narrative retelling of a whale attacking the Essex—the event that inspired Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick—and an historical representation of life in 1800s Nantucket. A small island in the Atlantic, the economy of Nantucket depended on whaling, and the society idolized yet suffered from it. Fusing extensive research with narrative nonfiction elements, Philbrick transports the reader quite literally into the heart of the sea.
Connect with me on Goodreads to see what I’m reading: https://www.goodreads.com/evdecleyre