Do you have a book addiction? I’m here to make it worse.
It’s that time of year when I tempt you to obliterate what remains of your savings on an out-of -control book buying bender.
What can I say? It could be worse. At least you’re not spending it on commemorative spoons.
I’ve got some great reads to recommend this year.
As usual, I read and re-read a lot of great travel literature to prepare for Personal Landscapes podcast conversations.
I also have a couple essential history reads to share, and some truly outstanding nonfiction, memoir, and fiction.
Each of the books below made my list because it was memorable, important, or just thoroughly enjoyable, and each is worth your time. I hope you’ll track them down.
Okay, first up, my Top Pick of the Year…
TOP PICK: The End of the World is Just the Beginning by Peter Zeihan
Zeihan’s work draws on geopolitics, demographics, and an absolute bombardment of data to make sense of the new world we’re already headed into. Essential reading if, like me, you’re trying to sort out where to go next.
If even a fraction of his forecasts come true, we’re in for a pretty rough decade. The outlook for Europe — and Germany in particular — is especially bleak.
I thought the same about Germany and the EU. If anything, I’m even more pessimistic than Zeihan on this region. After living in Berlin for six years, I can confirm that German efficiency is a myth. The economic powerhouse of Europe is a stagnant place crippled by bureaucracy, coasting along on older industries, and without the innovativeness to meet the coming challenges.
The outlook for North America is better, given the combined resource base and demographics of the NAFTA zone countries. Zeihan predicts the US will do well after a turbulent period of readjustment and re-shoring. My one critique is that he may be underestimating the impact of the current cultural divide in the West. I think demographics and geopolitics will likely prevail in the end, but we’re in for a rough transition. It’s an absolutely fascinating read. Get your copy here.
In the category of travel literature…
The Trouble I’ve Seen by Martha Gellhorn
Martha Gellhorn saw the grinding poverty of the Great Depression at first hand while writing reports for ‘New Deal” president FDR’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration. She was just 25 years old, and the youngest investigator on the team. She captures the slow collapse of daily life in this collection, along with the broken dreams of a generation caught in the century’s worst economic catastrophe. Get your copy here.
I also recommend The View from the Ground: Peacetime Dispatches, 1936-87, a wonderful collection of essays on place spanning 51 years of travel. Among my favourites were her travels in communist Poland, and a moving piece on torture in El Salvador from the 1980’s. I especially enjoyed the summaries she included on each decade as she assessed both the past and her writing and traveling life.
I also read The Face of War: Writings from the Frontline, 1937-1985, a truly outstanding collection by the 20th century’s best war reporter. From the Spanish Civil War in Madrid to a hospital ship on the D-Day beaches of Normandy, Gellhorn wrote about what war does to ordinary people.
Click the links above to get copies of these essential books. You can also listen to my podcast conversation with Gellhorn’s biographer Caroline Moorehead.
Figures in a Landscape by Paul Theroux
I always enjoy Theroux’s collections of his previously published pieces. There’s lots of variety here, from travel stories, book reviews and wonderful essays on reading to moving pieces about his childhood and his father. Get your copy here.
One People by Guy Kennaway
Guy Kennaway has lived in the village of Cousin’s Cove, Jamaica for more than 30 years. He describes it as “a little Eden made more interesting by the fall”, and he tells the story of this place and its residents in his comic novel One People. It will appeal to anyone who grew up in a small town, with small town characters. The book is funny, endearing and deeply human. It made me want to go there. Get your copy here.
You can listen to my podcast conversation with Guy on Personal Landscapes.
The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China by David Eimer
I loved David Eimer’s book on China’s troubled border regions and the minorities who inhabit them. I traveled through Xinjiang and Tibet back in 2002, so I was fascinated to read his insights filtered through a trained journalist’s eye. The second half of the book covers Yunnan’s semi-lawless Golden Triangle area, and the northeast near Russia and North Korea. Highly recommended for anyone interested in China and Asia. Get your copy here.
I also really enjoyed A Savage Dreamland: Journeys in Burma. Eimer moved to Rangoon in 2015 and ventured into every region of what is now Myanmar, from the slender tail of the southeast to the borderlands of Chin, scene of violent clashes between Buddhists and the Muslim Rohingya peoples. Throughout it all, he tries to come to grips with a complex patchwork of ethnicities, tribal armies, superstitions and the pain of history. This is a sensitive portrait of a country where things change, but mostly they form echoes of the past.
You can also listen to my conversation with David on Personal Landscapes.
High Albania by Edith Durham
When I hiked through the Accursed Mountains in Kosovo, Montenegro and Albania last June, I met older Albanians who still referred to Edith Durham as their mountain queen. I’d stumbled across a copy of her 1909 book High Albania while preparing for my trip, and I was immediately hooked by her descriptions of a tribal society where blood feuds were governed by a centuries-old kanun of customary laws. This is a rare first-hand look at a turbulent corner of Europe during the last years of the Ottoman Empire. Get your copy here.
You can also listen to my podcast conversation with Durham’s biographer Marcus Tanner, author of Albania’s Mountain Queen: Edith Durham and the Balkans.
The Last Speaker of Bear by Lawrence Millman
If you’ve followed my book reviews for a while, you’ll know Lawrence Millman is my favourite writer on the North. His latest book is a memoir of his life in the Arctic, and his encounters with memorable people, foods and fauna. Want to know what drink pairs best with bird droppings? Are you curious about how he scared away a mother grizzly and her cubs by flashing his genitals at them? Then this is the book for you. Get your copy here.
You can also listen in as Lawrence and I discuss The Last Speaker of Bear in a livestream book launch hosted by Trinity University Press.
In the category of general nonfiction…
Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left by Roger Scruton
Scruton does a thorough job of explaining the major contributions of the previous century’s most important left wing thinkers in understandable terms before revealing the sleight-of-hand of utter babble that each one used to conceal the void at the heart of their intellectual structures.
Having been forced to wade through this convoluted nonsense in university, I took great delight in sentences like, “Each chapter reads like an ‘assignment’ composed by a committee appointed to consider some matter towards which its members are largely indifferent.”
This is essential reading for anyone trying to understand why Marxism is the intellectual zombie that never seems to die despite having failed in a tragedy of gulags and broken lives every time it has ever been attempted. Scruton also sheds indirect light on the current flavour — the woke ideology — that is recycling the same tired tactics. Get your copy here.
Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee
I don’t read a lot of books about writing because far too many of them are by people who have barely published, or who only write books about “the craft”. Anyway, why bother with that stuff when you can consult this master class in writing long-form nonfiction from the legendary author and teacher? Highly recommended for anyone who writes, or who wants to understand how great writing works. Get your copy here.
The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View by Richard Tarnas
What an absolute treasure we have in the Western Canon: that centuries-long written dialogue with those who came before us. You’ll gain new appreciation for it with this journey through the ideas that shaped Western culture, from the Greek world through the Christian and Medieval eras, to the Renaissance, Reformation, Scientific Revolution and the finally the shock of Modernity and the dislocations of Postmodernity. Get your copy here.
Canoe Country by Roy MacGregor
My canoeing experience was largely confined to the mighty St. Lawrence River, first with my father and later with my friend Rob during our hatchet-and-beans island camping years in high school. This thoroughly enjoyable chronicle of the canoe’s central importance in the exploration and founding of Canada had me itching to do proper long-distance journeys. Something to look forward to when my Euro-years are finished. Get your copy here.
The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture by James H. Billington
I picked up this fascinating cultural history of Russia because I knew next to nothing about the place and its people. It’s a bit dated —published in 1966, so it only goes up to the Khrushchev era — but I was mainly interested in the endless tug of war between Western influences and Monastic apocalypticism, ‘modernity’ and the Byzantine faith. Get your copy here.
China: A History by John Keay
This engaging single volume history of China makes sense of all those warring dynasties, nitpicking Confucian bureaucrats and expansions and contractions of territory. Keay begins at the mythical beginning and ends with the resentment-fuelled communists and Tiananmen Square. Highly readable and very enjoyable. Get your copy here.
Martha Gellhorn: A Life by Caroline Moorehead
I was hooked from the masterful Preface of Caroline Moorehead’s vivid biography of Martha Gellhorn, the 20th century’s greatest war reporter. Gellhorn wrote about what war does to ordinary people, but she also wrote fiction and travel pieces. If you only read one biography this year, make it this one. Get your copy here.
You can also listen to my conversation with Caroline on Personal Landscapes.
Something Quite Peculiar by Steve Kilbey
I forgot how good this was. I first read Kilbey’s memoir of life in rock as an uncorrected proof in 2014 and re-read it for my podcast. He provides an interesting glimpse of 1960s suburban Australia, and the backstage drama, drugs and drudgery of life as a hard working touring musician in the 1980s and 90s. There’s never a dull moment, but there are a few unguarded ones. Get your copy here.
You can also listen to my conversation with Steve on Personal Landscapes. He was a massive influence for me as a writer. It’s always a pleasure to talk with him.
A Legacy by Sybille Bedford
A Legacy is a novel that draws on the story of Sybille Bedford’s parents and the fortunes of a wealthy but insular family in early 20th century Berlin. The dialogue crackles like a brushfire, and the private lives of the people she writes about reveal the culture and events of their time. Funny and observant and an absolute pleasure to read. Get your copy here.
And finally, in fiction…
4, 3, 2, 1 by Paul Auster
I loved Paul Auster’s brilliant intertwined story of one character with four lives: the one he actually lived and three alternate futures that explore what could have been. Classics aside, it’s the best novel I read this year. Get your copy here.
Under the Wave at Waimea by Paul Theroux
Theroux’s recent novel about a surfer in Hawaii tackles aging, responsibility, living on the glories of one’s past, and what we have left near the end of a life. I think it’s his best work of fiction in years. Get your copy here.
Keep the Aspidistra Flying by George Orwell
Gordon Comstock declared war on money, and he was losing. Orwell’s account of dissatisfaction with material society is bleak, scathing, and often hilarious. Get your copy here.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I finally had a chance to read this amidst all the podcast and pre-trip books. Brilliant. Mesmerizing. Difficult to put down. A book that percolates through your brain for a lifetime. Get your copy here.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
This interconnected series of yarns swapped by plodding pilgrims as they walk is filled with lewd stories, fart jokes, insults and tales of high romance. It also gives us a glimpse into everyday life in medieval England, and the thoughts of people who aren’t so very different from ourselves. Get your copy here.
At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O’Brien
One of the most important pre-1945 modernist novels, O’Brien’s madcap story about a writer writing a book about a writer whose characters revolt against their author is extremely funny and remarkably inventive. A feast for lovers of language. Get your copy here.
Three Novels: Molloy / Malone Dies / The Unnamable by Samuel Beckett
Beckett’s sometimes baffling trilogy about the meaning (or meaninglessness) of existence, the cause and end of suffering, and the search for self is stripped of plot, situation and characters, at least as we know them, but it remains strangely compelling. “…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Get your copy here.
So there you have it. My top reads from the past year, narrowed down with great difficulty from a rewarding 12 months of reading. I hope you’ll share it with others who might enjoy these recommendations.
What stood out for you in 2022?
Please share your best reads of last year in the comments below. I’m always looking for new worlds to explore.