It’s that time again.
I typically read about 100 books a year. Everything from travel literature to poetry, history, psychology, fiction and memoir.
I love reading lists and recommendations, and I bet a few of you do, too. So at year’s end, I like to take a moment to share my top reads of the past twelve months.
It was a really great year for amazing books in my reclusive world. A few were current, many were older, and each is worth your time. I hope you’ll track them down.
So without further ado — or adieu, for that matter — here are the books that got my Road Wisdom Stamp of Approval in 2016, from one book lover to another.
In the category of travel literature…
Last Places by Lawrence Millman
The best travel writing reveals new layers of a place, and inspires us to pick up an atlas — not just to find out where these strange settings are, but to start planning a trip of one’s own.
Millman’s travels take him through some fascinating bits of both physical and human geography: from the Shetland islands to the Faroes, through Iceland’s uninhabited centre, deep into Greenland, and finally to Labrador and Newfoundland, as he loosely follows the route of the Vikings and immerses himself in myth, landscape, solitude and questionable meals.
I first encountered Millman’s work many years ago in Best American Travel Writing 2001, the one edited by Paul Theroux. His story of Pantelleria stuck in my head, hovering at the back of my mind long after I’d transposed the location to Lampedusa.
I found a copy of An Evening Among Headhunters some years later, and several of those stories left their mark too. I grew up in a small St Lawrence River town in Ontario, and became temporarily obsessed with Anticosti Island after reading his book — an island I’d never heard of and still have yet to visit.
And I found Last Places while researching an upcoming journey to Iceland. Halfway through the book, I found myself ordering copies for friends, and sending away for Millman’s other northern books. This is an inspiring journey, wonderfully written, funny, honest, and true. And it’s my Top Road Wisdom Pick for 2016. [Get your copy here]
Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez
A wonderful, magical, multilayered book, by turns profound, sensitive, explanatory, deeply informed, adventurous and mysterious. I read it with a map by my side, and when I was finished, I went straight to my laptop to search expedition and flight possibilities.
Those were my favourite works of travel literature among the pile I read this year. I hope one of them catches your interest, and that you enjoy the journey as much as I did. [Get your copy here]
Before the Deluge: A Portrait of Berlin in the 1920’s by Otto Friedrich
A thoroughly enjoyable book about a fascinating decade in this most interesting of cities. As the German economy spiralled out of control, and as Nazi violence and insanity haunted the fringes and began its relentless takeover, Berlin experienced an unprecedented period of freedom, personal expression, creativity and permissiveness that remains alluring to this day.
Friedrich captures the feeling of the decade as Marlene Dietrich, Albert Einstein, Vladimir Nabokov, Bertold Brecht, Walter Gropius, the Expressionist painters, and others parade across the stage. This book delves into the world that Christopher Isherwood’s Goodbye to Berlin painted in fiction. [Get your copy here]
Ninety Degrees North by Fergus Fleming
The Arctic was — and in many ways still is — the greatest blank space on the map. And between 1845 and 1969, the race to conquer the North Pole became the greatest prize in exploration. The stage was set for some incredible tales of hardship and struggle as a series of determined individuals plodded on relentlessly towards their deaths. There was no mineral wealth at the Pole. It was just chunk of moving ice on a frozen ocean; a convergence of lines on a map. The prize was simply the glory of being the first. And Fleming has a gift for bringing the stories of these incredible individuals to life. [Get your copy here]
Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd
A beautifully observed, multifaceted account of this unique city that goes beyond mere history or cultural study and captures the poetic Spirit of Place.
I would suggest pairing this book with John Julius Norwich’s History of Venice. Norwich for a detailed, exhaustive account of the events in the life of this city / republic. And Ackroyd to understand how water has shaped the place and the people, both literally and metaphorically. [Get your copy here]
Saints and Fireworks by Jeremy Boissevain
If you want to understand Malta or Maltese culture, then you must track down this out-of-print book. Jeremy Boissevain was the first anthropologist to live and study here on the island, and his book provides the sort of key insights that remain just as true today as they were in the early 1960’s.
Malta was a carefully regulated society where Socialists and Nationalists clashed, where the Catholic church had an almost medieval authority, and where the village festa with their competing cults of the saints was both a source of harmony and of intense rivalry spanning generations. Today the parish priest has lost much of his authority, and politicians have usurped his role when it comes to patronage and influence. But despite having been written over 50 years ago, Boissevain’s insights remain startlingly accurate of Malta today. [Get your copy here]
Independent People by Halldor Laxness
This epic tale by Iceland’s Nobel laureate paints a bleak picture of the life of Icelandic farmers in the early 20th century, before the Great War brought prosperity to even the most isolated croft.
We live their struggle through the fiercely independent and incredibly stubborn Bjartur of Summerhouses, a sheep farmer who refuses to budge from his ideals despite the sort of hardships that would have killed a lesser man, or reduced one to begging from his neighbours.
He’s the sort of character who is so completely unforgettable that his name has become a reference for the brand of stubbornness he embodies. But while the poverty described in the book is grim, this is also a warm tale of humour, hope, and absurdly comic scenes. It’s practical, too, because you’ll find yourself evaluating sheep with the eye of an Icelandic farmer, exactly as I did on a recent journey through this wonderful country. [Get your copy here]
300 Days of Sun by Deborah Lawrenson
I’m very familiar with the setting of this book: the town and vicinity of Faro in Portugal’s sunny Algarve, as well as riverside Lisbon. And Lawrenson does a wonderful job of capturing the quality of light, the different breaths of the wind (from hot and sultry to mountain cool, to the intense flaying of a storm), the silky wines of Alentejo, the uneven cobblestone streets, and the kindness of the farmers and fishermen who populate this coast. She weaves this illusion with consummate skill and makes it all look so easy, concealing the depth of research such layered writing requires.
The historical echoes also bring a sinister WWII resonance of truth as they remind us that Lisbon was a hive of espionage during the war years, and the last hope of escape for so many desperate refugees.
Lawrenson had me taking out my atlas late at night to retrace my favourite barrier islands and coves, bringing them all back so vividly and inspiring the planning of another trip. [Get your copy here]
Berlin Noir trilogy by Philip Kerr
I had intended to read this trilogy one book at a time with something else in between, but I barely slept until I was through the entire thing. Some of the film noir style descriptions had me laughing out loud and reaching for my notebook. And that pre-war Berlin atmosphere during the rise of the Nazi’s captured the bleak hopelessness of a city and a country gone off the rails, like watching a slow motion accident that you’re somehow caught up in but don’t know how to avoid. [Get your copy here]
And finally, in general…
At the Existentialist Cafe by Sarah Bakewell
A wonderful and thought provoking book about a fascinating cast of characters who lived in exciting times.
I discovered the Existentialists — primarily Sartre, Camus and the related writings of Nietzsche — in my late 20’s, and their writings had a profound influence on the philosophy of life I was struggling to carve out for myself as I was writing the first draft of Vagabond Dreams. Bakewell’s outstanding book has reminded me of just how relevant the existentialists are to life today. Her earlier book on Montaigne is also a wonderful read. Highly recommended. [Get your copy here]
So there you have it. My top ten reads from the past year.
What stood out for you in 2016? Please share your best reads of last year in the comments below. I’m always looking for recommendations.