25 Days of Great Reads

25 Days of Great Reads graphic


The holiday season keeps us busy thinking about others—buying gifts for loved ones, cooking for family and friends, and bringing a little extra cheer to those who need it. All that is exactly as it should be. But The Snail has a gift that will help you treat yourself. It’s 25 Days of Great Reads, starting December 1 and running through Christmas. Each day, The Snail will bring you a recommendation for a really great read, many of them favorites from 2014 along with a few oldies but goodies. Don’t worry—I know you’re short on time, so these reviews will be short, too. Make sure to tune in to The Snail all month long, and share this post with your reading friends so they won’t miss out on the festivities. (Just click the Facebook button below.)

‘Tis the season to buy a few books for yourself and let your bedside reading pile grow!

Day 20

25 Reads Day 20

“The Snow Queen,” by Hans Christian Andersen

Since the Disney movie was released last year, you’ve seen Frozen everywhere you turn—and you’re more than ready to “let it go.” Before you do, let’s consider the source. You probably know that Frozen was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” And, it should come as no surprise that Disney took its share of liberties with the original tale. If you’ve grown tired of Frozen, or you never liked it to begin with, it’s time to take on the real deal.

Although it’s nice to add Andersen to your home library, his 19th-century stories are available online. Click here to find a version of “The Snow Queen” at your fingertips.

Just as Wicked did for The Wizard of Oz’s Wicked Witch, Frozen makes the evil snow queen a multidimensional character with an opportunity for transformation and redemption (and, as in Wicked, it gives her the big voice of Idina Menzel). In Andersen’s original story, the evil queen is just that—evil. She bears no relation to the story’s heroine, little Gerda. Instead, Gerda’s companion is a neighbor named Kai (or Kay, depending on the translation), whom she loves like a brother. When he goes missing, after being taken by the Snow Queen, Gerda sets off to find him. It seems too epic a quest for such a little girl, and she receives help from an assortment of wild animals and even wilder characters along the way. Yet the success of Gerda’s journey lies with her and her alone—and she proves totally up to the task.

“‘I can give her no more power than what she has already,'” says an old woman in Finland who provides brief respite to Gerda and guides her toward Kai and the Snow Queen. “‘Don’t you see how great it is? Don’t you see how men and animals are forced to serve her; how well she gets through the world barefooted? She must not hear of her power from us; that power lies in her heart, because she is a sweet and innocent child!'”

Unlike some other Andersen tales like “The Little Match Girl,” “The Snow Queen” ends happily: the heroine succeeds, and good triumphs over evil. The moral seems to be about believing in your own power, no matter your age, gender, or personal challenges. But we must also heed the lesson in the kind of spell that the Snow Queen casts. Before she kidnaps Kai and hides him away in her castle, she does something just as sinister to separate him from his family and his home. She pierces his eye and heart with a shard of a cursed mirror, which permanently alters his outlook. Everything he once thought beautiful becomes hideous and displeasing. Kai’s view is transformed by a spell, which is beyond his control, but we are meant to do all we can to avoid specks that cloud our view. It’s a reminder that perspective can be a powerful thing.

Day 19

25 Days Read 19

Brown Girl Dreaming, by Jacqueline Woodson

If I told you that Brown Girl Dreaming is a memoir written in poetry, would that make you feel uneasy? If I said that it’s the story of a black girl growing up in the era of Civil Rights, would you feel that you’ve read it before? If I mentioned that it falls within the Young Adult category, would that turn off those of you who prefer mature reads?

Whatever your assumptions about this book, put them aside. This is far and away one of the best books of 2014, a fact that has been proclaimed by everyone from the National Book Award judges to the bloggers at Book Riot. With Brown Girl Dreaming, you’re in for an entirely new reading experience. And I promise it’s one you—along with the young people in your life—will enjoy and appreciate.

Within the first page or two, you’ll forget you’re reading verse. As you take in Woodson’s childhood, her close-knit relationship with her grandparents, her difficult move from South Carolina to New York, her first-hand experiences with the Civil Rights movement, her development as a writer, and her search for herself, you’ll lose yourself in the elegant, easygoing lines. Her writing is utterly smooth and accessible and yet artfully loaded with meaning and style:

New York, my mother says.
Soon, I’ll find us a place there. Come back
and bring you all home.

. . .

And I imagine her standing
in the middle of a road, her arms out
fingers pointing North and South.

I want to ask: Will there always be a road?
Will there always be a bus?
Will we always have to choose
between home

and home?

Her renderings of racial prejudice are especially powerful:

In downtown Greenville,
they painted over the WHITE ONLY signs,
except on the bathroom doors,
they didn’t use a lot of paint
so you can still see the words, right there
like a ghost standing in front
still keeping you out.

Though she’s confronting serious issues and exploring profound ideas, Woodson manages to speak in a voice that plausibly belongs to a young girl. It’s an amazing accomplishment, and it’s what gives Brown Girl Dreaming its broad appeal. This is a book I want my 13-year-old son to read and maybe my 10-year-old daughter. If we can read it in tandem, it will be an ideal conversation starter about history, race, self-discovery, writing, and literature.

If you’re open to the idea, this gorgeous book begs to be read aloud. Not only will Brown Girl Dreaming make you view poetry in a whole new light; it might just make you love it.

Day 18

25 Reads Day 18

The People in the Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara

Christmas is exactly one week away, and there’s no time to waste. So, I’m going to toss out a few descriptions of this exceptional novel, one of my favorite releases of 2013. If you find any of this off-putting—and some of you will—then there’s no need to read any further. Do come back tomorrow, though!

A remote Micronesian island named Ivu’ivu. A primitive tribe of U’ivuan forest-dwellers known as “The Dreamers.” A rare turtle called the opa’ivu’eke that mysteriously helps humans achieve immortality. Science, anthropology, moral relativism. Footnotes, and lots of them.

Did I lose you yet? For those of you still with me, those readers who don’t seem to mind a little (or a lot of) science in your fiction, you’ll be well rewarded by this ambitious, thoughtful debut from Hanya Yanagihara.

The novel builds layer upon layer from the opening pages. A fictional scientist, Dr. Ronald Kubodera, is transcribing, editing, and annotating the story of the book’s main character, Dr. Norton Perina. Perina achieved world renown and snagged the Nobel Prize for his amazing findings in Micronesia, but, interestingly enough, he is currently in prison due to allegations involving the 40-plus U’ivuan children he brought back to the United States to adopt and raise. In the course of relating Perina’s strange story, the novel delves into issues of morality, hubris, and the human condition. It also references another famous literary classic, whose title I won’t divulge for fear of ruining this book for you. Suffice it to say, Perina recalls another of literature’s most famous unreliable narrators.

What is Perina accused of, what motivated him to do what he did, and would others have acted the same? These questions plague readers all along, as we try to sift through Perina’s unreliable narration to uncover the truth. “All I can say is this,” writes Perina, “I did try. I did what I thought was best. Today I am often torn, when telling this part of the story, between making apologies and not. I did not go to the island, as so many later did, to make money, or to try to convince one group of people to live and eat and believe as I did. I went for an adventure, and with the pure hope of exploration. I did not go to destroy a people or a country, as I am so often accused of doing, as if such things are ever as frequent or intentional as assumed. Did I, however, end up doing so? It is not for me to decide.”

The People in the Trees creates an exciting tension between fiction and science, and, if you’re up for a long, marvelous journey, you’ll not only get to see another part of the world; you’ll also explore the most primitive places inside the human psyche.

Day 17

5 Days Read 17

Christmas at Eagle Pond, by Donald Hall

Yesterday I stopped in one of those popcorn chain stores in a local strip mall to pick up a few Christmas gifts for friends. The popcorn is tasty and it comes in about 50 flavors. I chose a few sweet varieties, bought the vacuum-sealed bags, and took them home to stuff them into gift bags.

Last night, satisfied with having finished my holiday chores for the day—ordering a few gifts online, throwing together an appetizer for a party, and bagging my popcorn—I sat down with the promise of a beautiful seasonal story: Donald Hall’s Christmas at Eagle Pond. When I came across the following passage, my store-bought corn suddenly seemed a sham:

Then she said we would make popcorn balls to hang on the church tree at the party tonight, for the children to take home if they didn’t eat them right away. Gram went downstairs and brought up a quart of my grandfather’s maple syrup, which she poured into a saucepan on the range. It began to bubble. Over the firebox she placed a big kettle, melted lard, and poured in popcorn kernels. With a lid she covered the kettle. Soon I heard soft explosions inside which gradually slowed down and stopped. She removed the kettle from the heat and checked out the bubbly syrup. When it turned thick, we cleared the worn, flowered oilcloth on the set tubs, spread wax paper, and poured out the lukewarm popcorn. She carried the saucepan of condensed syrup from stove to oilcloth and dribbled maple glue over the pile. We molded sticky sweet balls, the size of baseballs, a messy and hilarious business. By the time we had constructed thirty or more, our hands were as sticky as our confections, which we left to dry.

For 12-year-old Donnie, who spends Christmas on his grandparents’ rural New Hampshire farm in 1940, homemade popcorn balls are among the many delights he gets to experience during his five-day stay. He usually travels from his suburban Connecticut home to see his grandparents only once a year, during the summer, so this wintertime visit is a special treat. Together, they enjoy a homespun holiday that we 21st-century readers can hardly imagine. Donnie revels in all the daily routines of his grandparents’ lives: milking the cows and gathering eggs at dawn, cutting wood, cooking the vegetables that have been harvested from their garden. Most of all, he appreciates the once-a-year holiday happenings that might seem basic from our modern perspective but appear wondrous through his childlike eyes.

Donald Hall, U.S. poet laureate in 2006–2007, pulls from his own memories of place and people to give us this plainspoken story, a brief but powerful episode in Donnie’s childhood. It’s a cliché to say Christmas at Eagle Pond tells the story of a simpler time—and it wouldn’t be true. This is a meager life dictated by necessities and hard work and impacted by the lingering Depression and a looming world war. Still, as you breeze through this little book, not even a hundred pages long, you can’t help but draw comparisons between your Christmas and theirs. And you may wonder whether yours falls short.

As I’m wrapping up this post, taking advantage of the WiFi at my neighborhood Starbucks, I just spilled coffee down the pages of my copy of Christmas at Eagle Pond. True story. What a fitting reminder of how distant my life is from Donnie’s—and how grateful I should be for Donald Hall’s nostalgic tale of a different brand of Christmas joy.

Day 16

25 Days Read 16

Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? A Memoir by Roz Chast

The time is never right for this particular conversation. “Dad, could you pass the sweet potatoes? . . . Oh, and, by the way, do you and Mom have an end-of-life plan?” Like the rest of us, author Roz Chast never discussed death with her parents either. She and her parents had perfected the practice of avoidance, which just made the inevitable more difficult.

IMG_2787In Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant, longtime New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast chronicles the last years of her parents’ lives in the way only she can: sharp, funny, poignant cartoons that tell a true story of love, loss, and reality. She lays bare all the eccentricities of her own background, including her Jewish heritage, her Russian immigrant grandparents, and her strained relationship with her mother. It’s part personal memoir, part tribute to her parents, and part wake-up call for the rest of us. Even if your family hasn’t had to confront these end-of-life decisions yet, you’ll recognize yourself and your loved ones in these pages.

Each step of her journey—from moving her parents to assisted living to cleaning out their apartment to literally watching them die—is fraught with pain, anxiety, guilt, and pretty much every other emotion on the spectrum. IMG_2789She takes a hard look at the mounting expenses of end-of-life care, and she admits to not knowing exactly what to hope for when it comes to her mother’s and father’s final days. She draws plainly her parents’ faults and weaknesses, as well as her own, but she ultimately honors their strengths as well. The situations are often ugly and tense, but the love that binds the three of them is real.

This wholly original book has won the Kirkus Prize for nonfiction, been nominated for the National Book Award, and made it on the New York Times best-seller list. IMG_2790And I completely understand why. I zoomed through it in one sitting, because I couldn’t put it down. As I made my way through, I laughed out loud, cried to myself, and shared the funniest parts with my husband.  I’m not sure it will teach you how to have this conversation, but it will teach you why you should.