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.
‘Tis the season to buy a few books for yourself and let your bedside reading pile grow!
We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler
Let’s kick off this 25 Days of Great Reads with a bang. I usually resist playing favorites when it comes to books, but I’ll go ahead and declare it: We Are All Completely beside Ourselves is my pick for best novel of 2014. Karen Joy Fowler continues to rack up nominations and awards (including a place on the Man Booker Prize shortlist and the title of International Author of the Year by the folks at the National Book Award)—and for good reason. On the surface, the plot and the prose are straightforward; but the undercurrents run oh so deep. It’s a novel with broad appeal: you’ll find family relationships (mostly of the dysfunctional variety), science and philosophy, secrets and plot twists. I’d have a hard time thinking of the reader who wouldn’t enjoy—and learn from—this compelling story.
“Once upon a time, there was a family with two daughters, and a mother and father who’d promised to love them both exactly the same,” declares the narrator, Rosemary, in the first chapter. This tale, mainly told to herself, takes some strange turns as Rosemary reconstructs the past and tries to make meaning out of the present. Some members of the Cooke family have gone away in the physical sense, but even the ones left behind have become alienated from themselves and each other. And it all seems traceable to a certain event, which some know nothing about and others want to forget. Throughout her memoir, Rosemary constantly compares herself to her sister, Fern. Yet putting herself beside her sister really means holding up a mirror to her own selfhood. Hence the book’s title. So, what does it mean to be a sister? A daughter? A human? You may need to close up that box of holiday decorations and open this book now to find out.
Georgia Bottoms, by Mark Childress
While making my way through this ridiculously silly and highly entertaining novel, I couldn’t help but think of that age-old rule about family: We’re permitted to make as much fun of our own families as we want, but just let someone else try. They’re likely to be sorry they ever lived. The same holds true for Georgia Bottoms. If any writer above the Mason-Dixon line had dared to pen this comic novel, it would have raised the hackles of its southern readership. But Mark Childress is from around these parts, so he gets a pass. Here, as in his 1990s novel-turned-movie Crazy in Alabama, the Monroeville, Alabama, author takes his southern roots and twists them into a tale that will have you laughing out loud—or snorting, if you forget your upbringing for a moment. Every page in Childress’s farce is covered in southern stereotypes and clichés, though readers will come across a few kernels of truth as well.
The novel’s heroine, Georgia Bottoms (whose surname would have been Butts, if one of her forebears hadn’t changed it to the more respectable “Bottoms”), gives readers all kinds of reasons to criticize, condemn, and dismiss her. But you’re likely to end up liking her. She schemes her way through every situation, and her every move seems calculated for her own benefit. When the events of 9/11 interrupt her annual ladies luncheon, for instance, her primary concern is what to do with the mounds of leftover Jell-O compote and Coca-Cola cake. In the end, relationships prove the most important thing in Georgia’s life, making her a true southern girl at heart. This novel is as shallow as Day 1’s pick (Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely beside Ourselves) is deep, so pick it up when you’re more in the mood for wading than taking a real swim. In any case, it manages to make a splash.
Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books, by Wendy Lesser
Why do you read? My book club friends and I regularly revisit this question, mostly as part of the conversation about what we will pick for next month’s discussion. It’s not surprising that, among our 10 club members, our reasons for reading are as varied as our personalities. Some prefer escapist fiction and happy stories because they want reading to take them away from real-life worries. Others gravitate toward nonfiction because they still read to learn. Some want hard, gritty literature that challenges their preconceptions about the world and ourselves. And, of course, a few members (including me) want to mix it up so that the act of reading feels different from book to book.
Earnest readers will enjoy exploring the subject of reading with Wendy Lesser. Lesser has the chops to take on this grand topic: she’s the founder and editor of the literary magazine The Threepenny Review, a well-published author of nonfiction and a novel, and a lifetime literary critic. More than anything, she is an impassioned reader. Lesser has read widely and deeply, and—as the book’s subtitle proclaims—she takes a serious approach to books. Big names like Dickens and Dickinson appear alongside contemporary faves like Mantel and Murakami, and literary concepts like character, plot, and narrative authority give the book its framework. But, throughout it all, Lesser insists on reading as pleasure. That’s her main motive in reading and also in writing this book for fellow readers. She goes behind the curtains of some of her favorite books, plays, and poems to discover the literary tricks that help these works produce pleasure, not just for her but for a wide audience. Her approach can be professional at times and personal at others. So embark on this book with a sense of adventure. Literature, writes Lesser in the prologue, is “always an adventure of some kind. Even the second or third or tenth time you read it, a book can surprise you, and to discover a new writer you love is like discovering a whole new country.” Why I Read inspired in me a new interest in detective novels, and it is bound to take you to some uncharted territory as well. Go forth and read!
The Hundred-Year House, by Rebecca Makkai
True confession: I turned the final page of this book, closed its cover, and then spent 30 minutes sketching out a chart of characters and their family lineage. I’m not always so compulsive when it comes to novels, but this one bewildered me in such a wonderful way that I determined to figure out every detail. The puzzle surprised me, as I was taken in by Makkai’s mellow story and rather aimless cast of characters. By the end I realized that Laurelfield, the haunted mansion at the center of this family saga, has been holding more secrets than I dared to guess.
Makkai’s strategy of telling this family history in reverse—from 1999 to 1955 to 1929 to 1900—prompts us to reconsider the notion of ghosts and how they haunt. Though we can’t really see it until the final chapter ties up all the loose threads, the novel beautifully illustrates how our present is determined by ghosts from the past. But it also suggests that ghosts can drive us toward a favorable future, as Zilla eventually understands: “She’s always thought of Laurelfield as a magnet, drawing her back again and again. But that’s just it: A magnet pulls you toward the future. . . . This is a place where people aren’t so much haunted by their pasts as they are unknowingly hurtled toward specific and inexorable destinations. And perhaps it feels like haunting. But it’s a pull, not a push.” Despite the headiness of that quote, this novel is focused more on characters than ideas. They display soap opera–worthy antics, from conniving and cheating to destroying property and falsifying identities. It’s a hundred years’ worth of craziness all done in high style.
Any book that keeps my mind churning for weeks afterward will earn my approval. In fact, I’d put The Hundred-Year House in the top 10 novels of 2014. It entertains, enlightens, and confounds—well, it will almost confound, until you make that family tree for yourself.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
I can anticipate your disappointment at today’s pick. “Bah! Humbug!” you declare. You know A Christmas Carol a thousand times over. You’ve had to grin and bear countless TV and film versions of this classic, with Scrooges ranging from Mickey Mouse to Bill Murray to Jim Carrey. Why, oh why would you read the book?
My best retort for the naysayers out there is why would you not read the book? It is, quite simply, the quintessential holiday classic. The Christmas Carol you know from the stage or screen may bear only a ghostly resemblance to Dickens’s 1843 original. Most versions will give you the tale of Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal transformation and spiritual redemption, indeed the foundation of Dickens’s moral allegory. But the book offers so much more, including a portrait of Victorian England that exposes some ugly, controversial issues of his day: workhouses, overpopulation, child labor, and more. Though a few of the specifics differ today, you might be surprised at how relevant Dickens’s message is for 21st-century readers. We, too, occupy a society rife with inequality and insensitivity. We know the likes of Jacob Marley, carrying around a chain of his own making, forged “link by link, and yard by yard.” Most of us labor under the burdens of business and busyness, without any real mindfulness of the people outside our narrow circle. If we heed the lessons of Dickens’s ghosts, we will be reminded to leave the confines of our countinghouses and extend a hand to those less fortunate. We may even be inspired to consider cultural change, as well.
Let yourself be visited this season by what Dickens subtitled his “Ghost Story of Christmas.” Believe it or not, you can, like Scrooge, have the experience in just a single night, since this novella tells its story in a brief five chapters. It’s the perfect reintroduction to an author whose typically thick tomes have struck fear in the heart of even the heartiest readers. If you don’t have a copy of Dickens’s book on your shelf, click here to read an e-version, thanks to Project Gutenberg.
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story, by Dan Harris
You know that voice in your head? The voice constantly yammering about all the things you need to do, a few you should have done, and still others that your friends and colleagues keep doing better than you? That voice—we all have one, and its volume is probably on high during this stressful time of year—is the evil main character at the center of the captivating new book 10% Happier.
You may know author Dan Harris as the current co-host of ABC’s Nightline, though he’s held a variety of positions on ABC news shows. The seed for his book grew out of an event that happened one morning while he delivered the news on GMA. He had a on-air panic attack in front of about 5 million viewers. The incident served as an embarrassing wake-up call to make Harris reexamine his life, his priorities, and that pesky voice inside his head.
Harris’s book takes us on his journey toward happiness—well, not happiness, but rather a state of being happier. Along the way, he has face-to-face encounters with Peter Jennings, Paris Hilton, and Deepak Chopra, to name a few of the big personalities. In true reporter fashion, Harris assumes a skeptical stance and he doesn’t shy away from unflattering portraits of his subjects. He’s especially hard on himself, and that’s precisely what you’ll like about his fresh approach. Unlike so many other books of the help variety, this one is written not by the guru but by the regular schmuck who’s still figuring it out. Dan Harris discovers the practice of meditation as a powerful way to quiet his compulsive inner voice and help him live in the moment. He finds that meditation can make him 10% happier—and he believes it can do the same for the rest of us.
This page-turner defies genre; it’s part self-help book, part tell-all autobiography, part behind-the-scenes exposé of the TV journalism world. And, as Harris ultimately conquers the demons inside his head, it’s a good-versus-evil story with a happy ending.
To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, by Joshua Ferris
Dentistry has never been so funny—or funny at all—but Joshua Ferris’s dead-on portrayal of an unlikable dentist whose online identity gets hijacked will crack up readers who don’t mind fiction with a sharp, cynical edge. The novel’s epigraph, a Bible verse taken from chapter 39, verse 25 of Job, pretty much sums up the novel’s tone: “Ha ha.” This is, however, comedy of the dark variety. One particularly memorable scene depicts Dr. Paul O’Rourke with his hands in a patient’s mouth, the hygienist patiently awaiting instructions, and a bevy of tools laid out on the tray. The only problem is that Paul has been daydreaming, and he can’t remember what this patient’s dental issue is or which procedure he’s about to perform. In Ferris’s hands, this calamity turns into an absurd sit-com-style situation.
Here and throughout, the butt of the joke is always Ferris’s modern-day tragic hero, who, though without seeming to realize it, brings all his problems on himself. Out of step with 21st-century technology, Paul discovers that someone has stolen his online identity and created a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter account in his name. His search for the culprit also becomes a search for some of the deepest questions regarding religion and life. While his quest turns into a slow slog about midway through the book, I found it worth pressing on—as did the Booker Prize judges, who nominated To Rise Again for the prestigious prize earlier this year.
The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters
Sarah Waters’s newest novel starts off as a mild-mannered story of British life after World War I. Life in London has forever changed for the residents trying to survive a multitude of losses, from loved ones to economic security. Frances Wray and her widowed mother, once part of a genteel family of means, now find themselves taking in lodgers to help ends meet. A young, intriguing couple moves into the Wrays’ upstairs rooms, bringing not only their strange furniture and taste in decor but setting off a chain of unexpected events. The plot, as they say, thickens.
I’m treading carefully, because the story involves a number of potential spoilers I’d prefer not to give away. Suffice it to say The Paying Guests has its share of sex, violence, and mystery, all overlaid with a thin veneer of propriety. Before you wrap up this 500-plus-page hardcover for your grandmother, you should know that, in addition to a bit of violence, it contains some slightly unconventional sex scenes that have prompted reviewers to call the novel “seductive,” “sensual,” and “volcanically sexy” (that last description is a stretch, but I guess USA Today got caught up in its own word play). Though parts are racy, if your grandmother enjoyed Girl with the Dragon Tattoo or Gone Girl, she’s going to find this positively chaste by comparison.
But Mama Always Put Vodka in Her Sangria!: Adventures in Eating, Drinking, and Making Merry, by Julia Reed
“Mama always put vodka in her sangria!” declared Julia Reed’s lifelong friend, Elizabeth, who had just whipped up a big batch of sangria for a party they were co-hosting. That night, the extra spirit in this family-recipe sangria made for a very spirited party indeed. Of course it did. We all know that food and drink form the centerpiece of any good gathering—and that’s the fundamental principle behind Reed’s latest book.
If the name Julia Reed sounds familiar, that’s because you’ve seen it in bylines in Garden and Gun, Newsweek, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Vogue. She’s been writing about food and people for more than 20 years. Her books, such as Ham Biscuits, Hostess Gowns, and Other Southern Specialties (2009), give us the chance to enjoy her witty, insightful storytelling at a longer sitting.
Reed is a Mississippi Delta native who now lives in New Orleans, but she travels widely and dines—and often cooks—with the Daniel Bouluds and the Alice Waterses of the world. In But Mama, Reed takes us all over the globe, from Paris to Madrid. Yet she returns again and again to her southern roots, in both the recipes she includes and the stories she tells. “Southerners have been doing ‘farm to table’—mostly by necessity—since long before the phrase was taken up by every foodie in the land,” she claims. But adventurous cooks also know “there is no shame” in using a reliable packaged ingredient now and then. For instance, consider Reed’s beautiful tribute to the Ritz cracker: “Then, of course, there is the mighty Ritz cracker, without which at least half of my mother’s entire repertoire would be decimated. She fries eggplant and green tomatoes in crushed Ritz crackers, uses them in place of bread crumbs or the lowly saltine in squash soufflés, and puts them on top of pretty much every casserole she makes.”
If you enjoy combining friends with good food, if you appreciate the excellence of Junior League cookbooks, if your favorite recipes are named after loved ones (like Mary Lou’s Pesto and Harriet’s Cornbread), or if you simply like to eat, you’ll find a kindred spirit in Julia Reed. So grab this paperback and wash it down with a glass of fruity sangria (you’ll find the recipe for the vodka variety on page 5).
Panic in a Suitcase, by Yelena Akhtiorskaya
There’s nothing inherently wrong with judging a book by its cover, as long as you’re actually judging books and not people. The cover of Yelena Akhtiorskaya’s recent novel is likely to catch your eye as you’re browsing the “New Fiction” shelf at the bookstore. And, if your first impression from that fantastic jacket photo is of a quirky read with peculiar characters, you would be right on the mark.
The subject of the novel—a traveler leaving home to spend time with family for an extended stay—makes for apt reading right now, as many of us prepare to travel home for the holidays. Like the main character, Pasha, in the novel’s first half, and his niece, Frida, in the second, we will probably unconsciously pack some panic in our suitcases. Though a long holiday to-do list or the potential for flight delays can be panic-inducing these days, we’re likely to feel most alarmed by the abundance of quality time with family members we don’t see too often. That is certainly the case for 40-year-old Ukrainian poet Pasha, only his panic is compounded by a few other circumstances: he’s the last family member still living in his homeland, he’s visiting his parents and sister in the strange new world of Brooklyn, his mother is dying, and the whole group is putting pressure on him to stay . . . forever.
In the novel’s first half, we look at America through the lens of Pasha’s Ukrainian perspective; toward the end, we watch the tables turn, as his 25-year-old niece journeys to Odessa to visit a sickly Pasha and his family. The places are different, as are the people visiting them, but the state of being an émigré—sometimes in your own land—is much the same.
Earlier this year, the folks at the National Book Awards honored first-time novelist Yelena Akhtiorskaya as one of the “5 under 35” authors. She’s not just under 35; she’s not even 30. Yet she depicts her aging characters with remarkable wisdom. Her style also captures the funny, mixed-up dynamics of family life. “A misunderstanding was the natural state of affairs,” Pasha thinks as he tries to communicate via phone with his overseas parents. And Akhtiorskaya intentionally re-creates that feeling in her prose. I often had to reread passages to figure out who was talking and to whom. But even when I couldn’t make complete sense of a scene, I completely got the sense of it. I sincerely enjoyed this glimpse of American life through other eyes.
The Boys in the Boat, by Daniel James Brown
So many friends have told me to read this best-seller that I’ve lost count. The numerous fans who have recommended it to me are readers with widely varied tastes in books, because this is one of those titles that appeal to a broad spectrum of readers. For that reason, I expect it will be filling lots of folks’ stockings come Christmas.
If you’ve heard this book called the next Unbroken (the novel-turned-movie sensation by Laura Hillenbrand), that’s because it’s another well-written account of the triumph of the human spirit—not to mention the human physique—over adversity and evil. While Unbroken focuses on the heroism of one man, Louis Zamperini (who also happens to have an Olympic background), Boys in the Boat emphasizes the element of teamwork. The sport of rowing is, above all, a group endeavor. And, in this book, the boat takes on mythic proportions, as Brown explains in his introduction: “I realized that ‘the boat’ was something more than the shell or its crew. . . . [I]t encompassed but transcended both—it was something mysterious and almost beyond definition. It was a shared experience—a singular thing that had unfolded in a golden sliver of time long gone, when nine good-hearted young men strove together, pulled together as one, gave everything they had for one another, bound together forever by pride and respect and love.”
The unlikely crew from the University of Washington wasn’t expected to best their American East Coast rivals that season, much less stand up to the rowing teams from Germany and Britain. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, with Hitler looking on, the group of nine astounded both Americans and the world when they won gold by the narrowest of margins.
I wouldn’t typically endorse a promotional book trailer, but the trailer for Boys in the Boat contains some fascinating historical photos and video footage. Check it out, and then buy this book for someone on your holiday gift list.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
I’m putting my feet up and letting someone else do the writing today. It’s not just because I’m lazy, but rather because I’m behind in my reading and I don’t want you to suffer for it. All the Light We Cannot See—even though I haven’t opened it yet—simply has to be part of The Snail’s 25 Days of Great Reads. It was a National Book Award finalist and keeps appearing on a number of best-of-2014 lists, from NPR to Goodreads to Amazon. So I must pass along this absolute-must-read to you. Rather than offering you a watered-down synopsis, I want you to hear from someone who has read and savored it. And that’s where my good friend Angela comes in. She’s a real heavyweight when it comes to reading; she set herself a goal of completing 50 books in 2014, and she’s living up to it. (If you’re wondering whether that’s impressive, count your own titles. I haven’t even hit 35, and I do this as my day job.) Out of all the books she’s read this year, Angela puts Doerr’s historical World War II novel in the top spot. So she’s the one to give you the glowing recommendation. Thanks, Angela! Now over to you . . .
It is the very rare novel that includes fascinating, complex characters; a compelling, heart-rending plot; and painstakingly beautiful language and imagery. Place all of that against the backdrop of thought-provoking historical fiction, and this is easily the best book I read this year. Ultimately, it will probably end up on my top five all-time list.
A motif of bees is woven throughout the story, and the use of color is so strong that it is almost its own character. Determined to delve into all aspects of this book, I did a Google search for “All the Light We Cannot See” and “bees.” The first result was a scientific article, explaining that bees can see colors that people cannot. Reading this book feels like glimpsing never-before-seen colors. The main character, Marie-Laure, describes her uncle’s voice as “low and soft, a piece of silk that you might keep in a drawer and pull out only on rare occasions, just to feel it between your fingers.” I feel the same way about Anthony Doerr and this book. —Angela Rawls
Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi
I bought this book the day it was released, back in March of this year. I didn’t queue up at the bookstore the night before, but I might have if necessary. After reading just one of Helen Oyeyemi’s novels, Mr. Fox, a few years ago, I became an immediate fan. For me—and for many other readers as well—her enchanting fiction conjures up pleasant memories of a favorite author whose voice was quieted far too soon: Angela Carter. Like Carter, Oyeyemi often uses fairy tales as a pathway toward confronting present-day problems. She leads us down what seems like a familiar path but alters the scenery and the route so that we end up at a different destination entirely. The breadcrumbs she throws us disappear, but she’ll help us find an alternate way home; when we get there, it’s with a new understanding and outlook.
The Boy, Snow, and Bird of the title are three females co-existing in a tense dynamic. Boy is stepmother to the beautiful, big-hearted Snow, who gets sent away to live with relatives once Boy has a daughter of her own named Bird. Bird’s birth exposes a deep, dark family secret: Bird’s dark complexion reveals that her parents are really light-skinned African Americans who have long been passing as white. The tale ultimately turns into a complex exploration of race, gender, and identity. Each character grows increasingly confused about her identity and can’t seem to grasp a true reflection of herself, as Bird explains: “Sometimes mirrors can’t find me. I’ll go into a room with a mirror in it and look around, and I’m not there. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but often enough.”
Oyeyemi is one of those authors you either fall instantly in love with or never want to see again. The reviews on Goodreads bear that out; you’ll find one reader raving about Boy, Snow, Bird right beside someone giving it one star and calling it a complete waste of time. Try this book if you can suspend your disbelief enough to accept magical realism, but with a serious mindset. If you can, you’re in for a fantastic journey deep into the woods.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
We reader types like to read about ourselves. We’re partial to books about books, because we enjoy reading about reading. Just consider one of the most clicked posts of our 25 Days of Great Reads series: Wendy Lesser’s Why I Read, from Day 3.
Today’s reading rec is fiction with a focus on reading, not to mention writing and storytelling. The novel’s main character, A. J. Fikry, is part of a dying breed: a local bookseller who works behind his shop counter every day, getting to know his dwindling clientele and making personal book recommendations based on each customer’s personality and taste. He’s a crotchety character, and I didn’t like him at first. Heck, I’m not sure I really liked him by the end. But he has an intriguing enough life story that managed to pull me along. He experiences tragedy, loss, love, parenthood, friendship, and personal transformation—all in the course of a brief two- or three-hour read.
For so much to happen in so few words, there’s no time or space to go deep. This is an action- and dialogue-driven book, often with implausible events, and it doesn’t offer psychological depth or philosophical musings. But that hasn’t bothered the large fan base that continues to put it on the New York Times best-seller list, first in hardback and now in paper. Based on reviews I’ve read, the admirers fill in the gaps for themselves, finding a connection with Fikry and inspiration in his life story. Yet Zevin seems to have intentionally painted her protagonist’s life with a broad brush. Fikry’s story is meant to be shown as a trajectory constantly moving forward, and the parts don’t fit into a whole until the final chapter: “In the end, we are collected works. He has read enough to know there are no collections where each story is perfect. Some hits. Some misses. If you’re lucky, a standout.” Fikry has led a life worthy of a story, but only insomuch as we all have.
The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry is tailor-made for book clubs, because readerly readers will want to discuss the choice of literary works that frame each chapter, from Mark Twain’s “The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County” to Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father.” If you’re the life list sort, this novel will have you taking stock of your reading history—and probably adding to your shopping cart.
All the Birds, Singing, by Evie Wyld
Unless you’re a sheep farmer, live alone on a remote British isle, or hail from the hinterlands of Australia, you’re going to enter unfamiliar territory in Evie Wyld’s eerie second novel. Jake Whyte, the young woman at the center of the story, has taken up residence on a sparsely populated island off the British coast with no one for a companion except her dog (aptly named Dog). From the start, you wonder what has brought her to this isolated geographical locale and this lonely existence. She’s a tough one, having learned how to tend sheep alongside a group of unforgiving men back in Australia. She doesn’t seem like the kind to be afraid on her own, except that a mysterious person or animal—or something else entirely—is bent on haunting her and killing off her sheep. It’s unclear whether the culprit is real or a manifestation of a phantom from Jake’s past. Whatever the case, something from her previous life is following her, no matter how fast and far away she runs.
Wyld, who was named last year to Granta‘s Best of Young British Novelists List, has contrived an ingenious structure for Jake’s complicated story. Two narratives alternate from one chapter to another, relating the events of the present and then the past. But the past is revealed in reverse, so that, as Jake’s story progresses forward, it simultaneously revisits scenes from her former days. It’s a way to show that Jake’s present is determined by her past, though it’s not clear just how. When the furthest recesses of her history are finally disclosed, the results make for an unpredictable end. And, in an interesting twist, you’ll probably find that the events of the past look a lot clearer than the rather inconclusive present.
I can’t help but think of book clubs when reviewing contemporary fiction, and, like so many books in our 25 Days series, this is a fitting pick for a group read. Women members, in particular, will likely feel some emotional empathy with Jake Whyte and her unusual situation. And readers both male and female will want to discuss the novel’s unique structure, not to mention its themes of survival and strength. The paperback version will be released on January 6, making it a good option for the new year.
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.
In 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. She 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. And 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
“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.
Today I’m turning the tables. Please share YOUR choice for best book of the year or a recent favorite. Post your choice in the comments below—and if you have a moment, say why you consider it a “great read.” I’m looking forward to hearing from YOU today.
Come back this week for The Snail’s final picks!
Stone Mattress: Nine Tales, by Margaret Atwood
It’s worth getting a shot of the opening pages of Atwood’s newest book, where we find a list of titles “Also by Margaret Atwood,” just to marvel at the sheer size of her oeuvre. She’s the very definition of prolific, having published more than 40 books of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children’s lit. Her latest novel, MaddAddam, had hardly been released in paperback when Stone Mattress, a new collection of short stories, appeared in September. To add to her apparently intense writing schedule, she maintains an active Twitter presence, and she’s fun to follow. In fact, just a few hours ago, she posted that she was making date squares. Really, Margaret Atwood? How many hours are in your day?
If somehow you’ve missed Margaret Atwood along the way, or you’re familiar only with her oft-studied 1985 classic, The Handmaid’s Tale, I highly recommend you pick up Stone Mattress and wade into her wonderful work. These tales encapsulate much of the strange, singular vision for which Atwood has become known. They explore fantastic, otherworldly places; dark, dystopian scenarios; and highly charged power plays between men and women. Her tone is funny at times but also deadly serious. Take, for instance, the opening line from the book’s title tale, “Stone Mattress”: “At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone. What she had in mind was a vacation, pure and simple.” As you can guess, Verna’s pleasure cruise to the Arctic isn’t going to turn out exactly as planned—especially for a particular male passenger on board.
In a blog post from last year, I extolled the virtues of the short story, especially in light of our busy modern times. Short stories are satisfying morsels that can be read in a sitting but still leave you with a complete experience and a fully realized vision. If you’re looking for literary satisfaction, you’ll certainly find it in each of the nine tales in Stone Mattress. If, however, you’re a reader who looks for a different sort of satisfaction in literature—a happy ending, let’s say, or even one with absolute certainty—don’t expect to find it here. Atwood’s stories often leave us hanging, as real life tends to do. She’s more concerned with the motivation of her characters, which, in Stone Mattress, most often seems to be revenge. So, even if we don’t know precisely what happens in these stories, we do understand why.
The Dead, by James Joyce
A Christmas feast lies at the heart of “The Dead,” the closing work in James Joyce’s inimitable collection called Dubliners:
A fat brown goose lay at one end of the table and at the other end, on a bed of creased paper strewn with sprigs of parsley, lay a great ham, stripped of its outer skin and peppered over with crust crumbs, a meat paper frill around its shin and beside this was a round of spiced beef. Between these two rival ends ran parallel lines of side-dishes: two little minsters of jelly, red and yellow; a shallow dish full of blocks of blanc-mange and red jam, a large green leaf-shaped dish with a stalk-shaped handle, on which lay bunches of purple raisins and peeled almonds, a companion dish on which lay a solid rectangle of Smyrna figs, a dish of custard topped with grated nutmeg, a small bowl full of chocolates and sweets wrapped in gold and silver papers and a glass vase in which stood some tall celery stalks. In the centre of the table there stood, as sentries to a fruit-stand which upheld a pyramid of oranges and American apples, two squat old-fashioned decanters of cut glass, one containing port and the other dark sherry. On the closed square piano a pudding in a huge yellow dish lay in waiting and behind it were three squads of bottles of stout and ale and minerals, drawn up according to the colors of their uniforms, the first two black, with brown and red labels, the third and smallest squad white, with transverse green sashes.
If you find yourself, in these days leading up to Christmas, assembling a legion of food and drink for your own guests, you will well relate to this description of a laden holiday table. The Misses Morkan’s annual holiday party is always a predictable, but lavish affair with dancing, music, and plentiful food. For one guest, their nephew Gabriel Conroy, this year’s party will prove far more bitter than sweet. We watch him as he spends the whole evening trying to live up to a certain vision he has of himself, but failing time and again. As the party draws to a close, the story narrows its focus to Gabriel’s relationship with his wife, Gretta. Already a little shattered by the events of the night, he wants to take comfort in their marriage, even hoping to rekindle some romantic excitement from their early days. But he senses something keeping them apart. When they return to their hotel after the party, she reveals a fact from long ago that will forever change him and his outlook on the world. “. . . how poor a part he, her husband, had played in her life. He watched her while she slept as though he and she had never lived together as man and wife.”
Like all the stories in Dubliners, “The Dead” depicts a character undergoing an epiphany, a transformative awakening to a new sense of self. So, how fitting that the story’s Christmastime party actually occurs in the early days of January, around the time of the Christian Epiphany. For all of us, Christmas can be a time of renewal. For Gabriel Conroy, it may need to be a complete overhaul.
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
I apologize in advance if you’re expecting a story with good news today. On this 24th day of our “25 Days of Great Reads,” I bring you tidings not of great joy, but rather a civilization in collapse. But, somehow, in this dazzling new novel, Emily St. John Mandel proves it possible to depict doomsday in beautiful style. Station Eleven is gripping, heartbreaking, and mesmerizing all at the same time. If you’ve started your list of New Year’s resolutions, put this read at the top of your list.
The novel opens with the sudden death of an actor playing the part of King Lear, and then a snowstorm that threatens to shut down the city of Toronto. But those are minor incidents compared to what is about to happen to the world at large:
In the lobby, the people gathered at the bar clinked their glasses together. “To Arthur,” they said. They drank for a few more minutes and then went their separate ways in the storm. Of all of them there at the bar that night, the bartender was the one who survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.
While this unsuspecting group toasts the passing of a famous actor, a flu pandemic is breaking out that will lead to the collapse of the entire civilization. Pretty soon, the world as we know it is gone:
No more cities. . . . No more pharmaceuticals. . . . No more certainty of surviving a scratch on one’s hand, a cut on the finger while chopping vegetables for dinner, a dog bite. . . . No more countries, all borders unmanned. . . . No more fire departments, no more police. . . . No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween.
But Station Eleven is about so much more than surviving in a post-apocalyptic environment. Mandel presents the possibility of love, friendship, beauty, and art as she tells the story of a traveling band of Shakespearean actors and musicians roaming the strange new territories in the Great Lakes region. The plot takes us both backward and forward in time, as we get to know characters before “the collapse” and then see them 20 years on, making it in a brave new world.
Named one of 2015’s best by the Goodreads Choice Awards, by the National Book Award committee, by Amazon, by HuffPost Books, by NPR, by the Washington Post—and the list goes on—this is one of those novels not to be missed. It’s the kind you’ll still be thinking about—maybe even dreaming about—long after you turn its final page.
Today marks the official end of The Snail’s “25 Days of Great Reads.” I hope you’ve enjoyed this seasonal series as much as I have. While making my book list and checking it twice, I thought I’d be able to put to bed a bunch of my favorites from the past year. And I did. But, in the process, I also kept discovering more and more great books that deserve our attention.
So, I offer you a final gift: a few more titles to carry you through the end of 2014. I stopped before “31,” since New Year’s Eve is meant to be a social occasion and not a time to hole up alone with a book (but who’s judging if you—and I—do?). These are all books I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading. Based on glowing reviews across the Web, I’ve added them to my own to-read stack and thought you might want to, too. If you’ve read any of these, please share your opinions in the comments below. We’d love to hear your thoughts!
Thanks for following The Snail in 2014. I hope you’ll pick up the trail next year. Until then, happy reading!