The Year of Magical Thinking
“Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death … We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.”
Some have argued that Joan Didion, quite literally, wrote the book on death and grieving. In this account of her husband’s sudden passing and the meandering, confusing year of grieving that followed, Didion says all the honest, troubling, and sometimes even funny things you’re not supposed to say about death. For those of us who need it, she gives us all permission to feel our own version of grief.
Point Your Face at This
“Reality is a concept that depends largely upon where you point your face.”
Give a standup comedian a Sharpie and … who knows? Give it to Demetri Martin and you’ll get pages on pages of peculiar sketches, (actually) witty wordplay, and diagrams that do a strangely good job at making sense of topics. Observations range from unproductive ants, propaganda booths, Halloween costume miscommunications, and fly swatters designed only to scare flies (but words alone do a disservice to these ideas).
Point Your Face at This is a collection of simple, ridiculous, mostly overlooked, yet undeniable truths of life in sketch form. Flip through the book and your stress will turn into a smirk, maybe even a quiet chuckle.
“For there is nothing quite so terror-inducing as the loss of sleep. It creates phantoms and doubts, causes one to question one’s own abilities and judgment, and over time, dismantles, from within, the body.”
Imagine a world where an infectious pathogen results in a perpetual state of insomnia, leaving everyone red-eyed and almost robotic. This is the reality in Charlie Huston’s Sleepless. Follow Parker Hass, an underground cop in charge of tracking down Dreamer, an illegal drug and the only source of relief from the virus. The story offers plenty of risk-taking, crime, sacrifice, sleep deprivation, and sleep-less nights … which hopefully remains as fiction!
The Art of Stillness
“Going nowhere, as Leonard Cohen would later emphasize for me, isn’t about turning your back on the world; it’s about stepping away now and then so that you can see the world more clearly and love it more deeply.”
TED sometimes gets criticized for not exploring its subjects with enough depth. The same might be said for Iyer’s book. But in this case, the subject matter fits the approach. It’s a concise biography that describes his lifelong efforts to find stillness within the pressures of contemporary life. It’s perfectly suited to those time-starved people he is trying to address because the few hours it takes to read feel like a step into a tantalizing world of calm.
Child of God
“I don’t know. They say he never was right after his daddy killed hisself.”
If you’re searching for a way to keep yourself awake at night or have a fondness for stories of twisted killers on the run (Who doesn’t?), then you’ve found a match. Just under 200 pages, it’s a witty, passionate, and macabre read. It’s a succinct introduction to McCarthy, and if it doesn’t raise your blood pressure, at the very least you might learn some lingo from 1960s Tennessee.
“… Like insane artists trying to gild refined gold or paint the lily, [they] pursued a private contest through the years of universal carnage.”
From the author of Heart of Darkness, this novella is a commentary on the pointlessness of war. While Napoleon picks a fight with all of Europe, two of his officers engage in a series of duels against each other, in a purposeless loop that spans decades. The two are consumed with one another, and the stalemate induces a stress that invades all parts of their existence.
A Short History of Progress
“Paleolithic hunters who learnt how to kill two mammoths instead of one had made progress. Those who learnt to kill 200 — by driving a whole herd over a cliff — had made too much. They lived high for a while, then starved.”
A review of our civilization’s anthropological record leads to the conclusion that perhaps we’re too smart for our own good. Wright is matter-of-fact in his descriptions of collapsed societies from our not-so-distant past, putting forward his theory of progress traps — societal advances left unchecked, leading to their eventual economic, cultural, and ecological breaking points. The parallels with our current situation are clear. The only difference, Wright argues, is that the stakes are much higher.
The Righteous Mind
“Morality binds and blinds. It binds us into ideological teams that fight each other as though the fate of the world depended on our side winning each battle. It blinds us to the fact that each team is composed of good people who have something important to say.”
There are few books as poignant in this moment in history as that of Haidt. His analysis of contemporary morality from an evolutionary anthropologist’s perspective is a radical examination of the foundations of our early 21st-century zeitgeist. Focused mainly on the underlying structure of liberal and conservative morality, he carefully lays out a different way of thinking about how large groups interact within alternative overlapping moral matrices. It’s a book that challenges fundamental belief structures, mostly liberal, without providing answers so much as it provokes questions.
Lost in the Wild
Cary J. Griffith
“He cannot stay out in this weather for long. It is still snowing, and he cannot afford to get wet. That would be inviting hypothermia. Hypothermic people don’t think clearly. They make stupid decisions, Jason knows. They die.”
A chronological account of two separate backwoods hikers lost in the wilderness near the Canada-U.S. border. Both were highly experienced outdoorsmen and still made very human mistakes that forced them to dig deep into their knowledge of wilderness survival to solve a series of life-or-death problems throughout their journeys. Read in a tent in the woods at your own risk.