Your brothers are arguing about politics. Mum is losing her mind over the turkey, and your sister, who has decided to promote herself beyond mere vegetarianism and become a vegan, is lamenting the death of the bird like it was once a fond friend. Dad is nowhere to be found, and, frankly, it’s time to follow suit and exit with what remains of your sanity. So slip on your slippers, don your robe, and pick yourself one of those silly hats with the little ball on top. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably find yourself muttering under your breath and wishing you were the spoilt eight year old again, but that you somehow had retained the knowledge that adulthood really isn’t all it’s made out to be. You leaf through the bookshelves, remembering what it was like to be small and to listen to your Dad reading The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, or to watch The Snowman and be unaware that the feeling of total peace in those moments would never be that simple or maybe even attainable again. Every Christmas we return to our homes and tables, for better or for worse, different people.
And thank God for that. Because, while the memory of me at eight during Christmas is charming and quaint and everything one could want it to be, any functioning adult at the time will tell you I was the insufferable little tyke who, when an elderly priest reached out to shake my hand after mass, snatched my own hand back and sang a verse of MC Hammer’s ‘U Can’t Touch This’. Of course the emotions that come out of Christmas as an adult are different from those that came before, just as those that arrive with reading are different than the ones before. I wouldn’t want to feel the same pure joy that I received from reading Harry Potter when I read In Search of Lost Time (not that I would ever read, or condone reading, any Proust while on any sort of vacation unless you want to be that guy). I believe what people need, during Christmas, is the objectively simple read that leaves you feeling warm, and not in the sickeningly sweet way, but in the fire in your soul way; the one that sticks with you because it made you feel hopeful, in only the way a good book can.
So here is a list of twelve books that, often times, will feel like fights or the climbing of a dauntingly tall mountain. You’ll reach bleak points, and wonder what on earth it was doing on this list, and then you’ll read the end, and realize why these are some of the most deservingly content books ever written.
THE ALCHEMIST by Paulo Coelho (HarperCollins)
More philosophic allegory than true fiction, The Alchemist follows a shepherd boy on his journey to find treasure in the pyramids of Giza. Along they way he meets with many wise men and begins a journey of self-discovery, centred around the idea of the Personal Legend and discovering ones destiny. Written in only two weeks in the late 80s, The Alchemist has a timeless message; ‘when you really truly want something, the whole universe conspires so that your wish comes true.’
WONDER BOYS by Michael Chabon (4th Estate)
For anyone that has ever been involved in a writing course or who studied English at university, this is the book for you. All the characters are people who are immediate identifiable, from the ridiculous Grady Tripp, the ‘has been’ writer who is struggling to write his 2,000 page novel, to the wonderfully sotto and strange James Leer, Grady’s student who has his own hidden novel. That’s the beauty of Chabon’s writing; the characters seem to live lives that go far beyond the page. While the book is comical and, frankly, a little bit eccentric, there are hidden depths galore throughout. A novel about the excitement of new love against the comfort of old friendship, Wonder Boys is a classic, well worth a holiday read.
UNBROKEN by Laura Hillenbrand (4th Estate)
The film is right around the corner, and excitement has very much reached fever pitch. Written by Seabiscuit author Laure Hillenbrand, Unbroken is an ideal Christmas book for biography enthusiasts. Detailing the incredible life of Louis Zamperini, Hillenbrand somehow captures the mind-set of PoW, and the forlorn misery and anger that comes out of many veterans once they return from war.
SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK by Matthew Quick (Picador)
Silver Linings Playbook is a reminder that the thing we really need may be right there the whole time. This stunning debut novel by Matthew Quick, which was made into the 2012 film of the same name, is YA at its finest. While the plot differs in several ways from the film, Pat is still just as lovably hopeful, and the ending we all want seems just as impossible. An unquestioningly joyful book, but special because happiness is earned rather than merely given.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL by Charles Dickens (William Collins)
Yes, we’ve all seen the Muppet film, but have you read the novella? One of the many short pieces that Dickens published, the story has become a classic for the Christmas HOLIDAY, and one of the best known western Christmas stories of all time. A Christmas Carol, however, is more than a story of redemption. For instance, by turning the ideas of Ignorance and Want into children hidden under the cloak of The Ghost of Christmas Present, Dickens makes clear the idea that people like Scrooge are ruined if they continue to judge the poor rather than help them. While A Christmas Carol’s themes have been drowned out by general holiday enthusiasm, it still holds just an important of a message for our society today as it did in 1843.
SWEET TALK by Stephanie Vaughn (Other Press)
A lovely collection of the short stories of Stephanie Vaughn, Sweet Talk is a constant reminder of the power of short stories in the modern age. Reprinted in 2012 after being off the shelves for several years, Vaughn tells the stories mostly from an up close and personal first person point of view, and we are immediately sucked into the humour, tragedy, and various other heavy emotions that come out. The most well known story is “Able, Baker, Charlie, Dog” which follows a girl’s relationship with her father after he is discharged from the army for swearing at his commanding officer.
BOY by Roald Dahl (Puffin)
A captivating insight into the childhood of Dahl, we learn about the events that helped create the stories we know and love so well. While some of the stories seemed they may have been exaggerated by the passing of time, such as the Great Mouse Plot of 1924 and Mrs. Prachett’s mad cackling, the rest of the memoir rings true, and shows the rest of us who didn’t get a chance to grow up in 20’s England what it was really like. However, what Dahl shows us here is a skill that anyone familiar with his children’s books may not be familiar with. He takes the normal day-to-day of his childhood and makes it beautiful.
RIGHT HO, JEEVES! by P.G. Wodehouse (Arrow)
The most well known Jeeves novel, Right Ho is utterly ridiculous, but undoubtedly clever. A book that will make you actually laugh out loud as opposed to just snorting out of your nose at things you know you’re meant to find funny, Wodehouse proves himself to be a master of the comedic form. However, much like Waugh or Wilde, much of Wodehouse’s works are an absolute mockery to the establishment of upper class pre-war England. As English as it gets, Right Ho, Jeeves! is the gem of a perfect series.
STONER by John Williams (Vintage Classics)
The publishing miracle of 2013, there was a time when you couldn’t walk into a bookshop without having it thrust into your face and being told “this is the best thing since sliced bread.” While sandwich lovers may disagree, there is something exceedingly special about this book. We are told right off that, to everyone else, William Stoner was the most unexceptional normal man there was. The reality, however, is that the quiet battles that Stoner fought in his life were many, and had a terrible beauty about them.
THE CIDER HOUSE RULES by John Irving (Black Swan)
“Goodnight you Princes of Maine, you Kings of New England.” The phrase has almost become cliché in pop culture, but when it first appeared on the pages of John Irving’s The Cider House Rules, it caused quite a stir. Placed in an orphanage in, as most of Irving’s books are, New England, Cider House Rules and it’s attitude towards abortion was the talk of literary America in the 1980’s when it was published. Which is a shame, because the real beauty of the story lies in the tender fatherly friendship of Dr. Larch and the protagonist, Homer Wells, as he grows up in an orphanage just before the Second World War. As with most Irving novels, the characters will stay with you long after you put down the book.
THE BORDER TRILOGY by Cormac McCarthy (Picador)
Sort of out of left field, I know. People usually don’t think of McCarthy as a hopeful writer, and often times, he isn’t. However, when we look closer at the perceived bleakness of most of his books, particularly the last few pages of Cities of the Plain, there are moments of light in the persistent dark. The Border trilogy, all together, adds up to around 1000 pages, so this is a serious haul for a vacation. McCarthy, who has been compared often with Faulkner, is a required taste, but the epic of John Grady Cole and Jimmy Blevins acts like a single star in the darkness of night.
Words by Jack Williams.
To find out more about our books, events and competitions, click here to sign up to our newsletter.