I had a very hard time putting together this list of five books to keep you warm during the holidays. In truth, this was no misfortune: I love books. In fact, it is possible I dallied in writing this post because it provided the finest of excuses to look at so many books and, inevitably, toss a few into a virtual shopping cart. Here are some suggestions to make your holidays a bit brighter, tastier and warmer.
1. Sometimes You Just Need Paper
The premise behind Chris Ware’s Building Stories is clever. It’s a book, or rather a graphic novel, that is presented in a box containing fourteen booklets. Reading Building Stories requires you literally to “construct” the stories of a lonely florist and a former art student with a prosthetic leg who lives on the third floor (that is a story) of an aging Chicago triplex, as well as the travails of the building’s other residents.
All this is somewhat gimmicky but Ware, whose cartoons have appeared in the New York Times Magazine and the New Yorker, pulls it off. Every detail is carefully attended to, with extra information about the characters depicted on the panels of the box. There is even a bee who happens to get caught inside when a window is shut; he ends up with his own comic strip, “Branford, the Best Bee in the World” in which he (as do so many animals in so many comics, like Snoopy) suffers all the travails of loneliness, love and loss of humans (including those in Building Stories).
Photo by chicagogeek/Flickr
2. Sad and Funny and Happy and Sad
“Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?” is writer Jeanette Winterson’s wrenching, often pained and frequently hilarious (in an “oh the terrible irony of it” sort of way) of growing up as the adopted daughter of Mrs. Winterson.
There is a Mr. Winterson, a World War II veteran who works in a factory in the mill-town of Accrington and is quite dwarfed, in stature and household influence, by his wife. The Wintersons are Pentecostal and Jeanette grows up in a home with six books (the Bible being, of course, the main one). “Harrowing” and “miserable” are words that barely describe a girlhood which includes periodically being locked up in the coal-hole or out on the doorstep for her misbehaviors or, rather, her sins.
These include the reading of books beside the Bible — the library is the author’s refuge and she makes her way through all the writers from A-Z — and the recognition of her attraction to women. Somehow, Winterson finds herself studying literature at Oxford and becoming a writer and then a most highly lauded one with her Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit being made into a BBC production.
But “Why Be Happy When You Could Normal?” is more than a tale of becoming a writer. Loss and love (and language) are major themes in Winterson’s work and her memoir charts her search for the source of these. My sense on reading the last page was that the book did not quite seem finished and, being a longtime fan of Winterson, I am relieved as this means she will be offering us more stories.
3. Yes, Please, Pie!
“Don’t forget the pie!”
That’s what one of my students said to me when we were once discussing Thanksgiving plans. While noting that his grandmother makes a special devil’s food cake for his birthday, pie was distinctly his preference and, especially, sweet potato.
“Pie: A Hand Drawn Almanac” by Emily Hilliard and Elizabeth Graeber offers some competition for the sweet potatoes. From pies with July berries to Speculoos Pie to Fried Apple Pies With Salty Caramel Glaze, the recipes are mouthwatering and the hand-drawn illustrations give the book the feel of a community cookbook. I’m quite ready to hie me to the produce section of my local grocery store, lug home bags of fruit and get baking.
4. While We’re On The Subject of Fruit Pies…
This past year, I have, at long last, been able to spend time in my back and front yards. I’ll admit I’m mostly cutting back hedges and pruning. I can’t say I’m a gardener, but digging in the soil and studying the root system of an aging bush are simply good tasks to absorb oneself in.
Nigel Slater’s “Ripe” is a companion book to his earlier “Tender,” which was about growing and cooking vegetables. “Ripe” is a primer on 23 different types of fruit with more than 300 recipes about how to cook everything from apricots to white currants, mixed in with the author’s accounts of maintaining a 40-foot terrace garden in London. A bag of cherries is, writes Slater, like a “bag of happiness” as “their appearance, in deepest summer, comes when life is often at its most untroubled.”
If you’re an urben gardener and would like a little more inspiration, you might also check out Soiled and Seeded, a Toronto-based online magazine for “neophyte, seasoned, adventurous and guerrilla gardeners.” The 8th issue contains articles about city herbs, teaching kids about gardening and the global foodscape and bees in Slovenia, where the panels of beehouss are painted in bright colors.
5. What Love Has Got To Do With It
Andrew Solomon’s “Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search For Identity” explores the experiences of parents who have found themselves caring for children quite different from themselves, due to disability and diagnosis. In chapters with one-word titles (including “Son,” “Dwarfs,” “Schizophrenia,” “Prodigies,” ‘Rape,” “Transgender,” “Father”), Solomon writes of people struggling, physically, psychologically, spiritually, to accommodate their lives and themselves to children who are often profoundly different from themselves; to a daily reality they had never imagined.
As a mother of a teenage autistic son, I can’t read “Far From the Tree” without reflecting on 15 years of raising a child who is, in many ways, utterly different. In total contrast to my husband Jim and me — we are both avid readers and talkers — Charlie can only read a few words, written singly in large letters. He speaks in very short (often one word) utterances with a vocabulary of not too many words. He will require lifelong care.
In contrast to what Solomon writes, our experience in raising a boy of little language has been not so much about wondering “how did we have this child?” but a constant journey into how very much Charlie is like us in temperament, intuition, sensitivity, a yearning for orderliness.
“Far From the Tree” closes with Solomon noting that “I started this book to forgive my parents and ended it by becoming one” — by becoming the father, with his husband John, of a boy named George. Noting “how unimaginable my family would have been fifty years ago,” Solomon describes his book as
… a how-to manual for receptivity: a description of how to tolerate what cannot be cured, and an argument that cures are not always appropriate even when they are feasible. As the jagged Alps are to the romantic sublime, so this curious joy is to the character of these families — nearly impossible, terrible, and terribly beautiful.
“How to tolerate what cannot be cured” and a “curious joy” that is “terribly beautiful”: statements that rather grandiosely say a simple truth, about how (to offer a broad paraphrase) love can conquer all and what a great thing that is.
What book are you planning to curl up with while leaning back on the couch, a warm cup of something nearby?
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