Sometimes I get a little obsessive about my reading. As a child, I recall spending one New Year’s Eve reading Terry Pratchett’s novel Sourcery as quickly as I could — partly because it captured my attention so intently, and partly because I wanted to close the year by finishing a book. Further, I wanted to begin the year with a brand-new book. This desire to start the new year with a new book felt like a powerful urge. What’s New Year’s for, if not a cleaning of the chalkboard, a fresh clean sheet of paper on which to start again? And what feeling is more symbolic of a new year than the cracking open of a new book with all its possibility and potential?
So what’s your first new book of 2017 going to be? Do you have a title in mind, or have you not even considered it, or do you consider this kind of thinking to be superstitious and silly? Maybe if you haven’t thought about it yet, you might play along as a thought experiment: you have a year’s worth of reading ahead of you. What will your first step be?
Even more importantly, are you going to start reading with fiction or non-fiction? This feels like a choice that could alter the flavor of your entire year. Real life or fantasy? History or the future? Either way, I have you covered with recommendations for both — a first novel of the year, and a first non-fiction book of the year. Given the 2016 we just lived through, I obviously can’t make any guarantees that these books will grant you a beautiful and pain-free new year. But I can assure you that you’ll find yourself in a better place after finishing each of these books. The only question is, where to start?
If you want to start your year off with a novel, you should try A.L Kennedy’s newest novel, Serious Sweet. Kennedy, a Scottish novelist and stand-up comedian who published a Doctor Who novel in the fall of 2015, makes her return to literary fiction with Sweet, a thick but effervescent romance about two people rounding the final corner of middle age.
Jon is a Londoner who works for the government. He’s a gentle man, a good man, and he’s especially proven to be gifted at keeping secrets. For a while, Jon has been handwriting confidential love letters to any woman who’ll ask. (He’s taken to advertising in classifieds, and charging a small fee so nobody thinks he’s a pervert.) But now, with his life falling apart, he may or may not be spraying government secrets to anyone who’ll listen as he wanders around London. Meg is an alcoholic accountant whose life has only recently stopped falling apart. They’re basically strangers, but by the end of the book, which takes place over the course of a single day, they’ll either be desperately in love or they’ll both be completely ruined.
Serious Sweet is another kind of love story, too: it’s a story about a writer in love with London. Soak this description up:
By the river, on the South Bank, a bleak day is punching beteween angles of concrete, sheering along walls to gather up pressure Tand speed. Heavy clouds are grinding overhead, fat with blue-black threat, although it may not rain. The February sky and the water are sorely depressing each other. The Thames is high and has turned the color of wet iron; it is making a muddy and rusty heave up from its estuary, from perhaps a troubled sea.
Though both Jon and Meg have been scalded by love before, this is a book that believes, thoroughly, in the magnificent healing power of love: “There were days when you would hold on to almost any voice, and there were days when you wanted a particular one, because you imagined that would be the best to help you keep a grip.”
Serious Sweet is heavier on the sweetness than the seriousness, although there is plenty of hurt and desperation and darkness in the book. It’s ultimately a very earnest novel — more earnest than any of Kennedy’s prior work — that roots heavily for its heroes. And London. And the human race. It’s not a book about fate, but it is a book about the human impulse to improve. (Maybe those two are ultimately the same thing?)
I can’t imagine a better novel with which to begin a year: it’s about a day that can change even the most hopeless of lives. It’s a book about believing in the future, even when you’re drowning in the past. Kennedy’s novel Paradise — also about an alcoholic woman — is still my favorite of hers, but Serious Sweet marks a rounding of a certain corner, a welcome new direction in her work. This is not the work of a writer who wants to do the same thing decade after decade, and a reader who takes a chance on it will likely find themselves vowing to try something new as well.
But say you’ve had enough of fictions for the moment. Say you’re looking for reality, cold and honest and provable. In that case, the non-fiction book I’d recommend to start off your year is Absolutely on Music, a collection of conversations between novelist Haruki Murakami and former Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Seiji Ozawa.
Absolutely brings together two world-renowned geniuses — men who are widely considered to be at the forefront of their respective fields — and puts them together. Ozawa doesn’t know anything about writing fiction, and Murakami doesn’t know how to read music or play an instrument, although he does have an impressive jazz collection and a working knowledge of classical composers. They’re geniuses without a common language, but it turns out that enthusiasm is the thing that binds them together — enthusiasm for art and music and life.
At the time the conversations in this book took place, Ozawa was in treatment for esophageal cancer, and Murakami seems to be consistently aware of the composer’s weakened state. The transcripts often break for the small healthy snacks that Ozawa needs in order to maintain his strength, and Ozawa seems to be very aware of the limitations of his corporeal nature throughout the book.
Perhaps because of Ozawa’s ailment, Murakami is the interlocutor here. This is very much the novelist taking steps into the composer’s world, and not vice versa. We learn about Murakami’s process and his views on writing, but only incidentally, in relation to Ozawa’s process.
Luckily, Ozawa has a spry and wide-ranging enthusiasm. He fields Murakami’s questions — about specific composers, about trends in recording classical music, about whether he considers reading music to be “fun” — with gratitude and patience.
For those readers who — like myself — don’t know much about classical music, the passion with which Ozawa and Murakami discuss the topic will inspire them to learn more. The playlist of discussed works would provide a terrific beginner’s course for anyone interested in gathering a more comprehensive understanding of what makes classical music so compelling.
Together Murakami and Ozawa discuss the latter’s mentor, Leonard Bernstein (they return again and again to Bernstein’s public admission that he disagrees with Glenn Gould’s interpretation of a Brahms concerto — a piece which Bernstein is about to conduct). They talk about the way audience appreciation for music has increased over decades, and how that changes the way music is recorded and conducted and performed. They gossip about dead composers and geek out over very particular recordings.
Their conversation is wide-ranging and, like many incredibly particular conversations, it becomes so particular that it opens back up again for readers of general interest. You don’t have to know every name the two men enthuse over, but you’ll find their energy to be infectious. You’ll want to learn the names and hear the songs. That’s the thing about being a nerd: if you do it right, your love is inclusive — it brings disparate people together in a common pursuit. That kind of appreciation is the right way to start a year.
Whether you begin your year with a step toward fiction or a step toward non-fiction, these books will serve to remind you that finding something to care about — a human or art or the nuances of a particular craft — is the most important thing you can do. It’s how you can make the world a better place: one step at a time, and always toward love.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant