Michael’s Merry Christmas List

Christmas is almost here and like all book nerds, now is the time to think about the books to buy and give to our loved ones. I secretly try to find books that will turn my friends and family into bibliophiles, it is all about matching the right book with the right person. Here are some suggestions that I am thinking about getting for my loved ones that might help others with books that you might not have thought of before.

The Book with no PicturesThe Book With No Pictures by B.J. Novak

Nothing will bring more pleasure than giving a friend with small kids a book with ridiculous words. The kids will enjoy making their mother or father act a little childish. The premise of this book is great; it is mixed with humour as well as teaching children about the joys of reading. B.J. Novak is best known for his role as Ryan Howard on The Office but he is certainly a writer to watch.

yes pleaseYes Please by Amy Poehler

Amy Poehler is a comedian and improv actor currently playing Lesley Knope on the hit sitcom Parks and Recreation. This is fun and quirky collection of essays about Amy Poehler’s life and passions. Yes Please follows in the same footsteps as fellow SNL actor Tina Fey, whose memoir Bossypants, took the literary world by storm a few years ago. If you are a fan of Parks and Recreation I would also recommend Paddle Your Own Canoe: One Man’s Fundamentals for Delicious Living by Nick Offerman (Ron Swanson). Yes Please also makes a great audiobook.

Choose Your Own AutobiographyChoose Your Own Autobiography by Neil Patrick Harris

Neil Patrick Harris played Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother, he is a Tony award winner and now he has released a memoir with a unique perspective. Mixing the nostalgia of the old Choose You Own Adventure novels with a memoir about pop culture is sure to be a winner for anyone lucky enough to receive this as a gift. Neil Patrick Harris is an incredibly gifted performer who recently transitioned to the big screen with a role in Gone Girl.

station 11Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven has received plenty of hype lately; it is a dark and stylistic post-apocalyptic novel. The book tells the story of a group of thespians who travel around America performing Shakespeare. While the premise of the book sounds a little boring, this book has been doing really well with critics and book lovers around the world. I think it is one of the best post-apocalyptic novels I have read in a long time. For fans of books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Passage by Justin Cronin.

The Secret History of Wonder WomanThe Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore

I am sure everyone knows someone that is a fan of comic books and let’s face it, Wonder Woman is always going to be one of the greatest superheroes. This book tells the history of not just this iconic superhero but also her creator, William Moulton Marston. This book follows not just the creation of Wonder Woman in 1941 but also the struggle for women’s rights throughout the 20th century. A fascinating book of pop-culture and feminism; this book has plenty to offer.

Merciless GodsMerciless Gods by Christos Tsiolkas

This is a risky pick and is definitely not for everyone but a collection of short stories from the Australian author of The Slap and Barracuda can make for a great present. This is a collection that deals with Love, sex, death, family, friendship, betrayal, tenderness, sacrifice and revelation so you will need to be very selective about who you give this book to. However Tsiolkas is a great author that is always ready to challenge his readers and that is something I respect.

Foxglove SummerFoxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

If you know people that love fantasy novels then Ben Aaronovitch might be the perfect choose for them. Be warned this is book five in the Peter Grant series but they work well as stand-alone novels too. Peter Grant is a London cop that is part of a small task force that deals with supernatural crimes. Urban fantasy is a great genre that normally mixes fantasy and crime into an urban setting. Think The Dresden Files (or the TV show Supernatural) with a sense of humour. These books are quirky, a little nerdy, but always a lot of fun.

What We See When We ReadWhat We See When We Read by Peter Mendelsund

This book is a must for all book lovers; it explores the phenomenology of reading itself. From the visual to the images our mind paints while reading, What We See When We Read is just the perfect book to have on the bookshelf. It is a stunning piece of art and literary criticism and will leave all readers pondering the art of reading for a long time. Peter Mendelsund designs book covers and has spent a lot of time working out the philosophy and psychology behind reading. I highly recommend this book.

All That Is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon

As book lovers we always look for ways to put our favourite books into the hands of everyone. All That Is Solid Melts into Air is my favourite for 2014 and if you are a fan of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra, then go out and get this book. This novel follows a group of people as they try to live their lives in the Soviet Union, but then the Chernobyl nuclear disaster happens and everything changes. This is a beautiful and haunting novel that deals with the social and political issues of the cold war era.

As you can see, for the most part I have picked books that will easily bridge the gap between TV and movies to books. Most of my friends and family are pop-culture nerds and view TV as the ultimate source of entertainment. This is the main reason why I went for books that will help them transition (hopefully) into a love of reading. Happy Holidays everyone and let me know what books you plan to buy for your loved ones in the comments below.

Russia in Literature, An Obsession

I am not sure if many people are aware but I am a big fan of Russian literature, not just books written by Russians but also books set in Russia. There is something about the backdrop and the way these books are written that I am drawn to. The culture is so different and with the instability of communist Russia used within a novel, it allows for the exploration of great stories and ideas. They are often epic novels that can sometimes be slightly odd but I found that Russian literature has great proses and character development that is just worth reading. This is before looking at the symbolism and motifs, but I won’t go into that. I have even considered learning to read Russian, just so I can read some of these books in their original language. I have noticed that people are often cautious of books set in Russia and view Russian literature as tomes that are difficult to read. So I thought I would talk about my favourite books set in Russia; not all are written by Russians but it is a good place to start.

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaA Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I have talked about this book before, and I am never going to stop being a book evangelist for this one. It was one of my favourite books of 2013 (I think The Machine by James Smythe narrowly beat it for the top spot) and it is set in war torn Chechnya as they try to break away from the Russians. Technically not set in Russia, since the collapse of the Soviet Union had already taken place, but the effects still remain prominent. This is a novel that follows three interconnected characters as they try to make sense of life and the changing world around. It is full of beauty that shines through from the back drop of this war torn country.

all that is solid melts into airAll That is Solid Melts into Air by Darragh McKeon

Marketing this novel as this year’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena was all that it took to make me pick this one up. I am glad I did, it is already a favourite for the year. The novel is centred on the Chernobyl meltdown, an era in history I have never seen in fiction before (I am sure there are a few out there). This is another character driven novel that explores ideas of fear and disaster and yet again there is great beauty to be found. Imagine living in Soviet Union, where every part of your life is unstable; so much so that the suggestion of implementing safety measure would be conceived as doing a poor job…until disaster strikes.

Little FailureLittle Failure by Gary Shteyngart

Gary Shteyngart is fast becoming a favourite author of mine; ever since reading Super Sad True Love Story I have become a fan of his writing style and quirky humour. Little Failure is a memoir of his life growing up in Leningrad, USSR (now St. Petersburg, Russia) and the migration to the United States. As a young Russian boy living in the US during the Cold War era it was easier for him to pretend to be German to avoid the hatred people had to the Soviet Union. This was a fascinating memoir full of humour and self-deprecation and I enjoyed learning about the writer’s journey.

Day of the OprichnikDay of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin

I often like to recommend this Russian novel just because it is so obscure and weird; people are more likely to have never read it. The birth of dystopian fiction is often accredited to the Russian novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin (which is great too) but I thought a post-modern satire that will have you saying “What the…?” would make for a much more entertaining read. Set in a dystopian future where the Russian empire has reverted back to the draconian codes of Ivan the Terrible, this science fiction novel is not only bizarre but serves as a critique of the political situation in modern Russia.

Crime and PunishmentCrime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

I love this book so much, not just because it makes me look pretentious but I think it was surprisingly easy to read. Think of it like a psychological thriller; Crime and Punishment takes the now popular anti-hero and adds it into a classic novel. Before Dexter Morgan there was Crime and Punishment. The protagonist Raskolnikov is a conflicted character; he shows interest in social classes and believes he is of a higher class than everyone else. That was until commits murder; then he is plagued by guilt, remorse and regret. This is a novel that focuses on the inner turmoil as well as the impact on his intellect and emotions.

Review – All That Is Solid Melts Into Air by Darragh McKeon

9780241003312One of my favourite books of 2013 was A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra so when he reviewed this book in the New York Times I took notice.

Set in Russia in 1986 the book follows the events surrounding the nuclear reactor meltdown in Chernobyl. The story doesn’t deal with the accident directly but instead on what it means for four characters who are caught up in the inescapable events in different ways.

We follow a gifted surgeon, Grigory, who is sent to the site of the accident to help coordinate efforts and his ex-wife, Maria, who is trying to survive the breakdown of their marriage. We also follow two young boys. Yevgeni, Maria’s nephew, is a 9-year-old piano prodigy who is trying to come to terms with his gifts amongst a miserable existence in a Moscow slum. And Artyom who lives on a farm inside the Chernobyl hotzone. Whose whole life is literally evaporated piece by piece.

Central to the novel though is the end of the Soviet Union. The Chernobyl Meltdown is the tipping point for the end of the empire. No safety or evacuation plans were in place. Nor was there adequate medical aid on hand as to prepare for an accident was to admit weakness in the Soviet regime. The accident and the Soviet Union’s response was the catalyst for the people of the Soviet Union to stop believing in the regime. Three years later the Berlin Wall came down. Two years after that the Soviet Union was no more.

Through his characters Darragh McKeon explores the many impacts this has on individual lives. The humanity that some try to cling to and the utter disregard the Soviet regime has for human life. What makes this novel even more relevant and poignant today is the fact that Chernobyl is situated in Ukraine (there is even references to a Korean Commercial Airline that Russia shot down three years before). A moving novel that gives a unique insight into a catastrophic event that still reverberates in the world today.

Buy the book here…