The Good Eye: Books Are a Slanket for Your Brain
Read your way through those visits with the in-laws
I'm having trouble getting into the Christmas spirit this year. Blame the late Thanksgiving, midterm elections, or a nation's willful blindness to its own deeply entrenched racism. Whatever the reason, my heart or my shoes, I'm sitting here on Christmas Eve, hating the Whos.
But there's one thing about the season I'll always look forward to: reading time. People talk about "beach reads," but I've never been able to concentrate with the sun glaring off the page and the wind whipping hair into my eyes. Books are winter friends; just ask Iceland. Add in the seasonal likelihood of being stuck indoors for days at a time, sedentary if not literally sedated, surrounded by beloved family from whom you nonetheless crave constant mental escape routes, and the holidays are the perfect time to tackle a novel. Realistically, you can only watch Die Hard so many times.
As a child, I used to re-read David Eddings' fantasy series The Belgariad every Christmas. The Belgariad was a calculated Tolkien rip-off by a cynical bastard who didn't even have the decency to give his wife co-writing credit. I'd like to think that even back then I wasn't deluded on the quality of the writing, but rather found its formulaic repetitions homey. Each character had exactly one physical feature of note and one epithetic adverb to go along with it; one character always raised her eyebrows archly, another twitched his nose sardonically, as if the book were written by a barely literate Homer. It was comforting.
Although to me it will forever conjure up the taste of pound cake, the smell of my grandparents' house, and the disco-fied Christmas carols of Mannheim Steamroller, I can't recommend The Belgariad for anything more than a nostalgia read. That got me thinking: What would I recommend for holiday reading nowadays? These books have a certain wintry feel: dreamy enough to drown out your cousins fighting over the remote, but not so plot-driven you'll feel bad putting them down for a moment when the pie comes out. And, oh yeah, a lot of them have castles. Just because.
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith. The British expat who wrote 101 Dalmatians was a master of delightful froth; this 1949 novel, often shelved as YA, mixes her trademark quirkiness with a heavy dose of nostalgia for her native England. Crumbling castle? Check. Adorable teenage narrator? Check. Winking references to Jane Austen? Checkmate.
Good Behaviour by Molly Keane. I love a good dark comedy set in the crumbling vestiges of British high society between the World Wars, but when it comes to mordant humor, the English have nothing on the Irish. This late novel by an overlooked Irish wordsmith is at once side-splittingly funny, gut-wrenchingly sad, and thoroughly nasty, like Brideshead Revisited dipped in acid.
Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. Set in Gormenghast, a castle so large it's a self-sustaining ecosystem unto itself, this hallucinatory fantasy moves as slow as your granddad on tryptophan. Total castle-porn.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Surprisingly light on horror for a post-apocalyptic narrative about a pandemic in which 99% of the world's population dies, instead it delivers a wintry wallop of nostalgia for comforts we currently take for granted – or gripe about incessantly on Facebook. The perfect antidote for an episode of Black Mirror-induced depression, it'll have you tenderly cradling your iPhone and whispering sweet nothings to your Blu-ray collection.
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, the cold-blooded commoner who orchestrated Henry VIII's schism with the Catholic Church, is one chilly read, featuring political machinations that make Game of Thrones look like – well – a game. You'll need to refer often to the list of names up front, but it's worth it: The second installment of the series, Bring up the Bodies, is even better.
The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett. The Coen brothers lifted a lot of the dialogue for Miller's Crossing straight from the pages of this 1931 pulp crime classic about love, betrayal, and racketeering. It's a palate-cleansingly fast read, and you can practically hear "Danny Boy" playing in the background.
Kindred by Octavia Butler. Imagine the plot of Back to the Future – now imagine the ancestor you have to protect in order to ensure your own future existence is a slave-owner who enslaved and raped your great-great-grandmother. A brutal and beautiful book about the visceral intermingling of violence and intimacy in our nation's past that feels as important today as it did in 1979, when it was written.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. Give Dickens a break this year and try this hypnotic, heartbreaking homage to his melodramatic world instead. It has everything: drug addiction, thieving urchins, impossible love, international crime rings, and lovingly described antique furniture. Bonus points: James Wood hates it!
Orlando by Virginia Woolf. The wittiest, gender-flippiest novel in the canon, this 1928 novel about an aristocrat who lives 300 years and changes both sex and gender at random intervals is also one of Woolf's most accessible reads. Plus it features lavish descriptions of an Elizabethan-era Frost Fair in which people ice skate over dead bodies suspended in the frozen Thames.
The Magicians by Lev Grossman. A bittersweet, grownup homage to Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia (both also excellent winter reads) that contains one of the best descriptions of depression in contemporary fiction. Did I mention castles?
The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine. Ruth Rendell's alter-ego Barbara Vine writes mysteries dripping with literary references. This one is my favorite because she talks about Henry James a lot, but it's also the best. Trust me. No castles, but there's a castle-like Victorian row house.
The Keep by Jennifer Egan. A highly entertaining postmodern mash-up of a novel that gets at the heart of what's great about the whole Gothic genre. I'll give you a hint: It starts with C, rhymes with tassels. Happy reading!