Recommended books: Christmas 2018

Reading time: Just over 4 minutes

Looking for some recommended books in time for holiday reading? Here’s my semi-annual roundup of books I’ve read this year.  

I aim to read 52 books every 12 months and my habit is to post a complete list of the names of them for you, in November and June. Here is a description of the remaining 25 books I’ve enjoyed this year. (In my summer list, I told you about the 27 books I’d finished earlier.)

Yes, I really do read more than a book a week! I give you this list at the end of November to help you with your Christmas shopping and your own holiday reading. 

Please note I don’t generally read mystery/thrillers, sci-fi or fantasy. I pass no judgment on those who do; my tastes don’t usually run in those directions.  

FICTION (in order of preference)

  1. McCann, Colum, (pictured above). 13 Ways of Looking. An interesting novella, about the death of a judge, with three very fine short stories attached. This author is a remarkable Irish writer with the eyes and ears of a poet.
  2. Towles, Amor. A Gentleman in Moscow. Thoroughly entertaining story of a Russian Count, who in 1922 is sentenced to house arrest in a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Soon to be a movie starring Kenneth Branagh. Thanks, Emily, for the gift of this book.
  3. Greer, Andrew Sean. Less. This comic novel walked away with the 2018 Pulitzer Prize. A satirical story about a 50-year-old gay male novelist, the book is outstanding not just for its story but for its finely crafted figurative language.
  4. Grant, Vicki. 36 Questions that Changed My Mind About You. Very funny young adult novel about two students taking part in a psychological study. I liked the way the author blended traditional story-telling with straight-out dialogue. Thanks, Kelly, for the recommendation.
  5. McCauley, Stephen. My Ex-Life: A Novel. Lightweight but well written and amusing story about a woman recovering from her second divorce. Many laugh-out-loud bits of writing.
  6. Chariandy, David. Brother. Beautifully written but sad and mostly unredeemed story of a Trinidadian young man in Toronto who is killed by police.
  7. Pelletier, Stacia. The Half Wives. Sort of a cross between historical fiction and chick lit, this book examines the story of a young preacher and his wife who lose their son to a choking accident. The story focuses on a single day, May 22, 1897, the anniversary of the son’s death, when his gravesite is threatened by a city ordinance.
  8. Franzen, Jonathan. Purity. By Jonathan Franzen, 2016. The story of a young woman drowning in student debt and the crazy lengths she goes to as she tries to eliminate it. The story goes in so many different directions, some of which are interesting, others just irritating. I read it while on holiday (when my reading attention is always higher); not sure I’d have managed it at another time.
  9. Barnes, Julian. The Only Story. As a longtime fan of Julian Barnes, I fell in love with the first third of this book. So charming and so funny. But I didn’t enjoy the way it became so bleak as the story wore on.
  10. Senna, Danzy. New People. A book about identify and infatuation as two biracial 27-year-olds live together and consider getting married in Brooklyn in the 1990s.
  11. Kwon, R.O. The Incendiaries. In a cover blurb, author Lauren Groff used the term “savage elegance” to describe this book and I agree with her assessment. Some remarkable figurative language and a gripping story about a young man’s first love (his girlfriend is subsumed by a cult.) Unevenly written but still interesting.
  12. Crandall, Susan. Whistling Past the Graveyard. Competently written but too “pat” and predictable story about a young white girl in 1963 racist Mississippi.
  13. Grady, Wayne. Up From Freedom. A white man named Virgil Moody forms a relationship with a black slave and helps raise her son. When the (adult) son runs away, Moody goes in search of him. Well written but I’ve read other slave stories that I found far more interesting and moving.
  14. Rachman, Tom. The Italian Teacher. Found this book vastly disappointing in comparison to Rachman’s superb breakout novel, The Imperfectionists. I couldn’t care about the people depicted here (a family of artists) and I found the writing to be subpar. 

NON-FICTION (in order of preference)

  1. Fiore, Neil. The Now Habit. I’d read this book years ago but I recommend it all the time (particularly to grad students) so I decided to re-read the latest and updated edition. This is still a superb book for anyone who struggles with writing procrastination. I particularly appreciate and recommend Fiore’s suggestion that we all schedule the “fun” things in our lives, first.
  2. Shaw, Rob and Zusman, Richard. A Matter of Confidence. Fascinating political book about the fall of the British Columbia Liberal Party and the taking of the gov’t by the NDP. Not hugely well written but really well reported. I loved the behind-the-scenes aspect of it.
  3. Sedaris, David. Calypso. Very funny book of essays. I especially like the way he’s able to balance humour with enormous sadness, for example his reflections on the death by suicide of his sister.
  4. LeCarré, John. The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life. Would have greatest appeal for LeCarré fans who are familiar with his novels. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this interesting and elegantly written memoir of the life of a spy turned writer. Thanks for the recommendation, Brian!
  5. Woodward, Bob. Fear: Trump in the White House. Non-fiction that reads like fiction. How is it possible the US has such a disastrous president? The stories contained in this book make the White House sound like a dysfunctional reality TV show. Superb reporting. Just-the-facts writing. Thanks for the gift, Eve!
  6. Donovan, Kevin. Secret Life: The Jian Ghomeshi Investigation. Plainly written and interesting account of the famous Jian Ghomeshi story, wherein the well-known Canadian radio host was charged with having sexually assaulted a number of women.
  7. Carreyrou, John. Bad Blood. Amazing reporting — on the scandal of a silicon valley startup gone bad — marred by mediocre writing. Still, the story of Elizabeth Holmes and her claims that she had devised a type of blood test requiring only very small amounts of blood, is utterly gripping.
  8. Levy, Ariel. The Rules Do Not Apply. A memoir offering an easy and quick read about a life filled with much drama. The author, who was 38 at the time, had a miscarriage in a hotel room while on assignment in Mongolia, when she was 19-weeks pregnant. Her son was born alive, but did not survive. Interesting reflections on motherhood vs freedom.
  9. Brennan-Jobs, Lisa. Small Fry. I had heard lots of positive press for this book by the first daughter of Steve Jobs but I was disappointed in reading it. I had hoped for more interesting writing but, instead, found her text typically plodding with the occasional bit of figurative flourish. The book did underline the importance of unqualified support for young children — the absence of that in Brennan-Jobs’ life (understandably) turned her into a voraciously needy person.
  10. Mailhot, Terese Marie. Heartberries. Short memoir about a young First Nations woman who was abused as a child. The essays are beautifully written but I found the structure too repetitive and episodic for my taste.
  11. Ford, Richard. Between Them. I’ve really enjoyed other Richard Ford books, collections of short stories, but this memoir — a remembrance of his parents — fell short for me. I found the writing too flat and with a few pages of exceptions, in the section of the book focusing on his mother, I found it remarkably short of insight.


Have you read any great books this year? Please let us know your recommendations! We can all learn from each other so, please, share your thoughts with my readers and me in the “comments” section below. Anyone who comments on today’s post (or any others) by Nov. 30/18 will be put in a draw for a copy of the book Personal History by Katharine Graham. Please, scroll down to the comments, directly underneath the “related posts” links, below. Note that you don’t have to join the commenting software to post. See here to learn how to post as a guest.

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