Imagine a world where a spell of forgetfulness sits like a fog over everything, rendering the past incomprehensible; where an ancient knight in rusted armour swears to defeat a dragon; where two people set out on a quest through a country divided by clan loyalties and war.

The surprise is that I am not talking about George R.R. Martin or Tolkien, but Kazuo Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go.

Ishiguro sets The Buried Giant in an age of decline. The idealistic reign of King Arthur is a distant memory and chivalry is, if not dead, then mostly gone. An elderly couple makes their way across a ravaged landscape on a quest to reclaim something important but long forgotten. Though Axl and Beatrice are old, they are naive, having subsisted in a hovel in the ground with their fellow villagers for as far back as they can remember, which is not very far. Their journey is one of children in a strange world, wide-eyed at the ways of outsiders. As they travel, bits and pieces of their past lives come back to them. These memories fortify them sometimes, and burden them at others.

Ishiguro has crafted an odd and beautiful combination of adventure and psychological drama. It's also a study of love, forgetfulness and forgiveness, companionship and death. It's Joseph Campbell's the hero's journey redone in a totally unexpected way. This book will very likely find its way to my top picks for 2015.

Our Souls at Night jacketWhat's it like to be inside someone else's head, looking out? That's a nut technology has yet to crack. Luckily we have fiction. Everything I know about what it's like to be...a young gay man in a repressive society, an elderly woman looking back on her life, a Japanese man struggling with identity... and on... I learned from reading fiction. With each book, I push a little outside the known world of myself.

Kent Haruf was one of those writers who could take you directly into the experience of another. In language that is deceptively simple, he describes the emotional and often isolated lives of people living in the small towns and country of the west. He died in November of last year, and so sadly, there is nothing more to read except for his last book, Our Souls at Night.

Our Souls at Night recounts the story of two widowed people: Louis and Addie live a couple houses away from one another in a small town. They know each other to say hello at the grocery store, and of course, because it's a small town, they know the rough landscapes of each others' lives - how forty years ago, Louis had an affair; how Addie and her family lived through a tragic accident. Some believe that small towns have a stronger sense of community, but in fact, it's just as easy to be isolated and removed from life in a small place as it is in a large. Addie makes a decision to poke at this loneliness by inviting Louis to be her bed-mate, to come over each night and lie in the dark with her and talk. After some initial awkwardness, they settle into a quiet joy in their companionship. Their contentmet is shared out to Addie's grandson, who stays with her when her son's marriage begins to disintergrate. But the solace they find in one another will be tested by the bitterness and anger of others.

Haruf's story is heart-rending in its simplicity, and if you have older parents, it will challenge you to think about how aging, and loss, and the judgement of others affect our elders. And it will make you mourn for the loss of this great writer.

 

The Life-changing magic of tidying up bookjacketI am susceptible to the idea of 'organize your home = organize your mind', so with all the buzz around The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, I had to try it. Though the author, Marie Kondo, had me at "life-changing", the subtitle is equally intriguing: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. I was thinking about the path to beauty through study and simplicity - bonsai, sushi, ikebana. Would there be an equally methodical approach to tidying?

The verdict? There are some eye-opening and sustainable tips here, including storing everything, including clothes, vertically (don't worry, she'll tell you how.) In light of our consumer culture and the rise of movements like Buy Nothing Day, the author's advice about keeping or buying 'only those things that spark joy' makes sense; um...well, except for underpants...and insurance...and, oh, never mind. 

But the bits about the crushed and defeated clothes on the bottom of the pile and the sadness and despair of socks that have been tied in knots? Well, sorry, I'm not buying the sentient clothing argument. But, if you're interested in a peaceful and organized home, this book is well worth a read. If you adopt Kondo's methods, you'll probably enjoy a more restful space - that is, if you can convince the rest of your family to play by the same rules!

A magic trick can leave some people slack-jawed with amazement. I can take or leave the sleight of hand; for me, an artist performs the most awe-inspiring of trick of all by conjuring something out of nothing. Watching an artist create gives me the same pleasant and engrossing buzz that many magic fans enjoy.

Maybe I caught this bug as a kid watching a show called The Book Bird. In it, a mustachioed man named John Robbins combined two of my great loves into performance art - he drew a scene from a book as he described the story. I would then rush to my public library to find out how the book ended. Public television has always been a good place for art junkies. Long before the idea of personal affirmation became popular, Bob Ross assured us that we could paint and encouraged us all to embrace "happy little trees".

According to Clarke's third law, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Watching an artist create something out of nothing feels like magic to me. Whether you're looking for inspiration for your own work, or you just like to watch, take a look at this list of artists in motion. And here's some affirmation from Mr. Ross himself.

Epitaph bookjacketAfter years of consuming cartoon images of the Wild West inhabitated by larger-than-life characters like Wyatt Earp, Ike Clanton and Doc Holladay, it's quite a feat to reverse the trend and present them as real people. That's exactly what Mary Doria Russell does in Doc, and her latest, Epitaph: A novel of the OK Corral. Russell is always meticulous in her research, and she tells much of the story from the perspective of women, and in particular Josephine Sarah Marcus, the common-law wife of Wyatt Earp.

What I love about a well-researched historical novel is how it piques my curiosity. With Epitaph, I was intrigued to learn more about Jospehine and how she carefully controlled the public perception of Wyatt Earp and what occurred during those 30 seconds, yes! ... 30 seconds! ... that would fuel the public imagination and affect perceptions about the 'wild west' that are still curled up like a sleeping rattlesnake in the shade of the American psyche.

And yes, it's true that I've just told you about a book that won't be out until March, 2015. But that gives you time to read Doc, Mary Doria Russell's intricate and beautifully crafted portrait of Doc Holladay.  Then follow your curiosity where ever it leads in anticipation of Epitaph.

 

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