Ideally it should indulge escapism without requiring you to forsake your intelligence, it should help inform you so that you become indispensible at BBQ’s and parties. Holiday reading is about finally having the time to think deeply, care widely, relax completely and learn about some truly strange things. With that in mind here are the ten books that I believe, respectively, fulfill the above criteria. And like many discount stores before me, I guarantee* you will instantly enjoy these, because there is nothing more irritating than a nonstarter when you’re miles away from the nearest book shop.
If I were a broken record, this would be my lament: have you read The Maytrees by Annie Dillard? Think 1950’s Cape Cod. Think Bohemians in love who live amongst the dunes and devour over 300 books a year between them, who prosper and despair at the same rate they make art and read storms and live with few creature comforts instead collecting time, poems and a thoughtful practice of living. Dillard writes pros like poetry but without losing the strength of a good narrative and if you wish to stall time and lose yourself in something bigger and altogether more beautiful than ordinary language then take The Maytrees away with you.
Similarly passionate but more conventionally engrossing is the Young Romantics by Daisy Hay. Don’t be put off by the author’s flimsy name or indeed the books ‘lady centric’ cover (it’s so bad I recovered mine with a map of Europe). Hay’s collective biography of the romantic poets (Shelley, Keats, Byron, Leigh Hunt, Mary Shelley and Clair Clairmount) strips them bare, reveling their revolutionary concepts of liberal love, creative communities and some of the worlds most outstanding poetry. Hay clearly loves her subjects and the book shifts between core characters at a lightening pace; gripping and informative it’s heartbreaking, creatively encouraging and completely enthralling.
Whilst the romantics were shrugging off the law of god Tim Wilson was bringing god back. Shortlisted for the NZ Post book awards 2010 and long listed for 2012 IMPAC awards Their Faces Were Shining tells the story of annoyingly devout Hope who forsakes regular relationships in her dedication to god but who is nonetheless left behind after the rapture occurs. Often dismissed by the NZ public as ‘too fantastical’ (imagine that, fiction not being real!) I found Wilson’s writing instantly engaging, funny and a clever mapping of the religious psyche.
Speaking of religion I cannot stress strongly enough how the following non-fiction will help you socially, you will always have something interesting to offer at parties if you read these titles. The Psychopath Test by Jon Ronson investigates psychopathy (via case studies of psychopaths), scientologists (who believe psychology was responsible for the holocaust), CEO’s who could well be psychopaths (proposing that corporate business is an amoral Mecca for those among us with an abnormal amygdala) and much more besides; this is as whimsical as it is informative.
Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakouer traces the history of Mormonism via a close case study of the fundamentalist Lafferty brothers, who murdered their sister in law and her baby daughter in the name of god. From peep stones to massacres to polygamy; fundamentalist Mormons are addictive reading.
Deer Hunting With Jesus reads a bit like the inciting manifesto for the Occupy movement. Written by the too-soon-dead author Joe Bagent, a renegade in his local Virginia for voting liberal and spouting pro-union sentiments, Bagaent spent years blogging on socially forward sites in his gruff, straight up southern manner and this book compresses his musings into one funny, loving, thought provoking book about red necks.
Plenitude (Juliet Schor) helps answer the questions posed by Baegent; Schor posits a new kind of economy, one with real wealth that among other things intelligently lays out a week with less hours worked, more jobs as a result, self sufficiency thriving and ecological projects endorsed. Part intelligent design, part common sense and immediately implementable, Plenitude gets you riled up and ready to do good. In between making good decisions try and read some poetry, it helps to clean your mind like sniffing coffee beans cleans your olfactory senses; Seeing Stars by Simon Armitage reads like a baby novella, a selection of unending tiny stories on everything from fridges to the first person monologue of a whale: ‘I am attracted to the policies of the Green Party on paper but once inside the voting booth my hand is guided by an unseen force. Sometimes I vomit large chunks of ambergris.’
McSweeney’s Book of Poets Picking Poets is where a poet picks another poet that you would maybe never have heard of and suddenly you’re reading something new that is also the inspiration behind someone you already love and…I’m all a quiver.
The previous two are like nightcaps my final recommendation is the whole meal: A Moment in the Sun by John Sayles. Spanning from 1897 to 1903 this epic takes the measure of pre 20th century America with a finesse and intrigue that defies expectation. Sayles (writer/ director of Lone Star and The Secret of Roan Inish) undertakes a giant piece of work and although it comes in at just under 1000 pages there is a beating heart here that rewards your bravery in the face of such daunting mass. An epic journey and one you’d only really have time for when on holiday.
*I offer you no actual restitution, just my heartfelt desire to not lead you astray and the hope of your forgiveness if I do.
Note: This appears as an article (alongside Brian Boyd’s suggestions) slightly changed in the current Metro (December issue).