With four whole days until Christmas, let me tell you the good books I read this year that you SHOULD have bought for yourself or others.

(As always, my recommended books of the year are the ones I read in that year, not the ones published in that time. I read books to get AWAY from the cultural zeitgeist, not to fall into it!)

There are in no particular order, except perhaps subconsciously.

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay

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I have mostly a handshake-and-Facebook acquaintance with Paul, which is too bad because I suspect we probably get the same kinds of complaints about our work from a certain subset of cretinous readers: that it doesn’t go “far enough.”

I used to wish that there was a better word than “horror” for stories like ours (and Laird Barron’s and John Langan’s and Livia Llewellyn’s etc.) because it comes with a lot of clumsy expectations. Now, I just hope more books like A Head Full of Ghosts keep stretching that frontier into more subtle psychological territory.

It goes plenty “far enough.”

The blithe description of the book is that it is about a teenaged girl whose apparent demonic possession becomes the subject of a documentary TV show, but like the show itself, that’s a gross misunderstanding of what’s really happening to Marjorie Barrett and her family. This is a book as much about the stories we tell ourselves about our own fears as about the fears themselves, and every character is wrong about the possession in ways that are far more scary than a demon.  

Tremblay does an amazing job with the tiny accumulating details of real fear, and the effect reminds of me all the best parts of Steven Spielberg’s (nominally Tobe Hooper’s) Poltergeist: the horrors come knocking on our middle class doors, chased away by the worse things already within.

The Martian, by Andy Weir

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If there was room between all the shit about Jesus in the Inspiration section of the bookstore, I’d shelve The Martian there.

Why? Because no matter how bad your life is, no matter who has dumped you or betrayed you or fired you or cut off your leg or called you a failure or denied you a small business loan, it will never be as bad as being marooned on Mars.

And no matter what you think can fix your life — self-help books, prayer, AA meetings, cults, shooting up a movie theater, traveling to Bali, coloring in books with markers — nothing will work quite as well as screaming briefly and then solving the current goddamn problem right in front of you before going on to the next.

Mark Watney starts this book well and surely fucked as many of us have been. We usually have water and oxygen when we’re fucked, but hey, bad is bad. Watching Watney rationally (and with humor) face his problems one by one with every resource he has (brain included) could certainly be a lesson to almost everyone trying to fix the world from debate stages and Facebook.

You look at what’s actually in front of you — not what you want to be in front of you, not what you hope to be in front of you — and you use 100% of it to make the next ten seconds 1% better than the last ten seconds.

Sometimes all you can do is survive to solve the next problem, but somehow, that’s always enough.

Working Days, by John Steinbeck

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When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote a journal at the same time, a place where he could grumble about what he was working on that day and what was coming next, and the result — Working Days — is one of the most useful books you will ever read about writing.

Why? Because it tells you that doubt and chaos and distraction is normal. And that it’s possible to work through them.

Now that I’m thinking about it, Working Days is The Martian but for writing a book. Steinbeck is stranded on Planet Joad and he has to make the best decisions each day to survive to make more tomorrow.

And the result — SPOILER ALERT — is The Grapes of Fucking Wrath.

One word and one sentence and one chapter at a time, folks.