It’s that time of year. The holidays are banging on the front door of your mind like a bunch of Jehovah’s Witnesses gone rogue. Yes, the end of the year is nigh and with it comes the chaos of gift shopping, office parties, and other seasonal social dysfunction. The only saving grace will be found in precious moments of solace, even if it means locking yourself in the bathroom. Now more than ever a good book is a needed prescription for sanity. Here’s a selection of favorites I’ve read over the past year. As always, it’s an eclectic mix with something for everyone on your gift list. So find a quiet place (bathroom) and pour a glass of strong water. Then, as my Mom used to say, sit down, shut up, and relax. And read a good book.
The Creative Act: A Way of Being, by Rick Rubin
If you know anything about the music biz, Rick Rubin is one of the top producers, if not the best. His list of clients going back several decades is like a who’s who in the industry, from the Beastie Boys, Run-DMC, Public Enemy, and LL Cool J. to Johnny Cash, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Chicks. Rubin also has serious writing skills and his The Creative Act is, by far, the best book I’ve ever read on the creative process. It’s like reading the Tao Te Ching for artists. This is my favorite book of the year and I read it in January—and then reread it last summer. Highest recommendation.
What an Owl Knows, by Jennifer Ackerman
Jennifer Ackerman is an award-winning science writer, speaker, and New York Times bestselling author. With her latest book, Ackerman spent several years traipsing the globe to observe the illusive and mysterious life of the bird of prey that poet Mary Oliver calls “a god of plunge and blood.” What an Owl Knows is Ackerman’s best work yet.
Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
A mid-year revisit of a favorite classic. I first read Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker at some point in the 90s. By then, there were five volumes in the epic saga, a radio series, and video game. The book reached critical mass when Disney made a movie of it in 2003. Fortunately, they did a good job. Sadly, Adams died unexpectantly at age 49 just as the film was wrapping up. At least we still have his brilliant, cheeky, and strange book. And that is a wonderful thing. If you’ve never read Hitchhiker’s Guide, you’re in for a treat.
The Wife of Bath, by Marion Turner
Marion Turner is the J.R.R. Tolkien Professor of English Literature and Language at the University of Oxford and an academic authority on Geoffrey Chaucer. I first came across her several years ago in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air. Turner had just released a biography on Chaucer, author of The Canterbury Tales. Earlier this year Marion followed up with The Wife of Bath, a fictional biography about one of the major characters in the tales. Allison, as she is known in the book, is arguably the first named women in literature. She’s also the first to talk explicitly about contemporary married life in the middle ages with emphasis on sex, domestic abuse, and misogyny. Throughout, Turner places Allison’s fictional account in the context of the lives of other real medieval women, from a maid who abandoned her employer and forged a new career in Rome to a duchess who married her fourth husband, a teenager, when she was sixty-five. The Wife of Bath is a superbly written and thoroughly researched book.
Art Thief: A True Story of Love, Crime, and a Dangerous Obsession, by Michael Finkel
Michael Finkel’s Art Thief is the incredible story of Stephane Breitwieser. From 1996 to 2002 Breitwieser and his girlfriend stole over a billion dollars of art and antiques from dozens of museums in France, Belgium, Switzerland, and beyond. Finkel spent over 10 years researching and investigating Breitwieser and his accomplice, piecing together their every move as they pilfered a trove of precious artwork and historical artifacts, some dating back over five hundred years. The book is a captivating read with an ending that provides more than one unexpected twist.
Travels With My Aunt, by Grahame Greene
Travels chronicles Henry Pulling, a retired bank manager, as he meets his septuagenarian Aunt Augusta for the first time in over fifty years at what he believes to be his mother’s funeral. Over the course of the book, Henry is gradually transformed from an uptight wall flower to a charlatan smuggling cigarettes and booze in Paraguay–all thanks to Aunt Augusta.
Friend and colleague Mark Davidson has just published an outstanding book on the wines of Australia. Since 2008, Davidson has been head of education for North America for Wine Australia. His book is an excellent compendium of the country’s regions, wines, and producers. Over the years I’ve made no secret about being a fan of Australian wines, if anything for the deliciousness factor. If you likewise are a fan, by all means check out this superlative new book.
National Dish, by Anya von Bremzen
Von Bremzen is a Russian-born American culinary writer and three-time James Beard Award winner. Her latest book, National Dish, is a compendium of essays about so-called national dishes from various countries including pizza from Naples, Ramen from Japan, and more. Throughout, von Bremzen is meticulous in her attempts to track down the history and authenticity of each. Superbly written and an informative read.
Leonard and Hungry Paul, by Rónán Hession
Known as Mumblin’ Deaf Ro, Rónán Hession is an Irish blues musician and writer based in Dublin. Leonard and Hungry Paul is his first novel and it’s a gem. The two title characters are young men in their early 30s. Although implied, one is never sure if they have disabilities or are the result of their home environments. Regardless, Hession paints an endearing world the two share with their families, colleagues, and friends, and skillfully manages their challenges with empathy and humanity. In the end, Leonard and Hungry Paul is a delightful, feel-good read—something we could use more of.
Party Like It’s 2044, by Joni B. Cole
Vermont-based Joni B. Cole is a writing instructor and author of seven books. Her latest collection of essays called Party Like It’s 2044 is wickedly funny and guaranteed to make you snort out loud at least once, if not twice, per chapter. Keep that in mind if you plan to read it on a plane.
Sayville Tales: A novel of Travelers’ Tales, by Lawrence Jay Switzer
Imagine a recasting of Bocaccio’s The Decameron. Instead of a group of young royals escaping Florence to avoid the plague, the entire book takes place on a train as it travels the length of Long Island. Like the original, a motley group of characters takes turns telling tales, most of which are strange if not downright bizarre. There’s one more addition to the menu. The main character of the book is the devil. Add a plethora of quirky graphics and you have a unique reading experience.
Making It So, by Patrick Stewart
Stewart’s new memoire traces his life story from beyond humble beginnings in Northern England to the world’s biggest stages and beyond. From age nine, his ambition to act has driven his entire career. And what an amazing career it’s been. If you’re a fan like me, this is a great read.
I Must Be Dreaming, by Roz Chast
I’ve followed cartoonist Roz Chast’s work in the New Yorker for many years. Her latest is a graphic novel filled with illustrations and witticisms focused on her dreams. No surprise the nocturnal visions of a cartoonist are beyond strange and usually funny. I read the book in one sitting. Delightful.
Opposable Thumbs: How Siskel & Ebert Changed Movies Forever, by Matt Sanger
For 29 years Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were the preeminent movie critics on TV as well as heated professional rivals. Thanks to YouTube, their onscreen bickering and mano-e-mano format remain the stuff of legend and continue to impact the media to this day, political talking heads and sports shows to name two. Author Matt Singer is a NY-based film critic who grew up idolizing Siskel and Ebert from childhood days. His book documents the history of the dynamic duo in captivating detail.
The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, by David Embury
Long before mixology appeared on the beverage horizon there were classic cocktails and those with the knowledge and experience to make them—all without the precious factor. David Embury’s The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks describes that world in detail. Embury, a New York attorney, first published the book in 1948 just after WWII and less than 15 years after the repeal of Prohibition. While it contains instructions for making over 700 cocktails, Embury’s work isn’t about recipes per say, but the author’s philosophy on classic cocktails (he numbers them at six) as well as everything one needs to know about spirits and stocking a home bar. If you’re a fan of cocktails, Embury’s tomebelongs in your library.
Message in the Bottle: A Guide to Tasting Wine
You knew this was coming. In the spirit of the holidays and shameless self-promotion, I’m including my tasting book. If you haven’t picked up a copy, by all means please do so. If you have, my thanks to you. I have two additional requests: buy a copy for a friend. Then leave a glowing review on Amazon. You will have my eternal gratitude. Buy it here.