That was the sound of November zipping by. Yep, it’s true. December is already here and that means gifts and trees and eggnog and stockings and lights and shopping and traveling and ribbons and hot chocolate in reindeer mugs and singing one-sided versions of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” at the top of your lungs in the shower. At least, for me it means all of these things.
I love the holidays, but even I know they can sometimes be a little stressful. For that reason, you should choose your December reading material carefully. Nothing too heavy, nothing too brainy, nothing you’d be embarrassed to read on an airplane or surrounded by your family. Nothing that will make you cry (unless you like that sort of thing).
Here are a few books I recommend for that crazy window between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve. These reads will get you through the holidays and keep you smiling even when flights are delayed or cats are playing King Kong with your Christmas tree. (Psst! The books in this list also make great gifts!)
[Note: All book blurbs are from Goodreads unless otherwise stated.]
Short & Sweet
One problem the holidays present is simply finding time to read. If you’re not going to be stuck on a plane at some point, you may be wondering if it’s even possible to finish a book during this hectic season. For busy bees like you, I recommend alternatives to traditional novels.
These collections of essays, poems, short stories, and six-word memoirs are perfect for the reader who can’t commit to a full-length book this month. Pick them up, read a little bit, put them down again, and carry on with your chaotic day. (Watch out, though. Some of them may not be as easy to put down as you think.)
Not Quite What I Was Planning: Six-Word Memoirs by Writers Famous & Obscure, edited by Larry Smith and Rachel Fershleiser
Deceptively simple and surprisingly addictive, Not Quite What I Was Planning is a thousand glimpses of humanity—six words at a time.
When Ernest Hemingway famously wrote, “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn,” he proved that an entire story can be told using a half-dozen words. When the online storytelling magazine SMITH asked readers to submit six-word memoirs, they proved a whole, real life can be told this way, too. The results are fascinating, hilarious, shocking, and moving.
From small sagas of bittersweet romance (“Found true love, married someone else”) to proud achievements and stinging regrets (“After Harvard, had baby with crackhead”), these terse true tales relate the diversity of human experience in tasty bite-size pieces.
This book is strangely compelling. You’ll find yourself creating your own six-word autobiography before you know it.
2015 Texas Poetry Calendar, edited by David Meischen and Scott Wiggerman
From the Dos Gatos Press website:
Inside you will discover 103 poems as diverse and original as the state itself. Texas State Poet Laureate Dean Young opens the calendar with a poem on the inside front cover. As you turn the pages, you’ll see names that have appeared in our calendar before, keeping company with poets who are published here for the first time. You’ll find young poets, established poets, and award-winning poets. You’ll find poems that invite multiple readings.
Get a head start on the new year with this poetic calendar. When you get to August, you’ll see a poem by yours truly!
Less Short But Still Sweet:
I Was Told There’d Be Cake, by Sloan Crosley
From despoiling an exhibit at the Natural History Museum to provoking the ire of her first boss to siccing the cops on her mysterious neighbor, Crosley can do no right despite the best of intentions — or perhaps because of them. Together, these essays create a startlingly funny and revealing portrait of a complex and utterly recognizable character who aims for the stars but hits the ceiling, and the inimitable city that has helped shape who she is. I Was Told There’d Be Cake introduces a strikingly original voice, chronicling the struggles and unexpected beauty of modern urban life.
Never in a Hurry: Essays on People and Places, by Naomi Shihab Nye
In “Never in a Hurry the poet Naomi Shihab Nye” resists the American tendency to “leave toward places when we barely have time enough to get there.” Instead she travels the world at an observant pace, talking to strangers and introducing readers to an endearing assemblage of great-great-aunts, eccentric neighbors, Filipina faith healers, dry-cleaning proprietors, hitchhikers, and other quirky characters, some of whom she met just once. As inviting and inventive as her poems, Nye’s insightful essays spill forth from the collection with the spontaneity of stories spoken across a kitchen table.
I absolutely loved both of these collections. Sloan Crosley’s essays about killing off her math teacher in the Oregon Trail computer game and getting distracted while cleaning out her closet until she ends up watching TV in her prom dress will have you laughing out loud. And Naomi Shihab Nye’s writing is beautiful. Her descriptions of people she’s met and places she’s traveled will restore your faith in humanity, but that doesn’t mean this book isn’t also funny. My favorite story in the collection begins, “Only once did I take a large group of children on a field trip. A summer creative writing class journeyed by bus to a printing shop to see how pages were bound together to make books and our cheerfully patient guide chopped her finger off with a giant paper cutter.” It’s a wonderful tale.
If you’re looking for something holiday-themed but still want a book you can read in short bursts, try one of these classics. Jean Shepherd’s writing will delight you as much as the famous movie based on his stories, and if “The Gift of the Magi” is the only O. Henry story you’ve ever read, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the clever twists in his other work as well.
A Christmas Story, by Jean Shepherd
The holiday film A Christmas Story, first released in 1983, has become a bona fide Christmas perennial, gaining in stature and fame with each succeeding year. Its affectionate, wacky, and wryly realistic portrayal of an American family’s typical Christmas joys and travails in small-town Depression-era Indiana has entered our imagination and our hearts with a force equal to It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.
This edition of A Christmas Story gathers together in one hilarious volume the gems of autobiographical humor that Jean Shepherd drew upon to create this enduring film. Here is young Ralphie Parker’s shocking discovery that his decoder ring is really a device to promote Ovaltine; his mother and father’s pitched battle over the fate of a lascivious leg lamp; the unleashed and unnerving savagery of Ralphie’s duel in the show with the odious bullies Scut Farkas and Grover Dill; and, most crucially, Ralphie’s unstoppable campaign to get Santa—or anyone else—to give him a Red Ryder carbine action 200-shot range model air rifle. Who cares that the whole adult world is telling him, “You’ll shoot your eye out, kid”?
The pieces that comprise A Christmas Story, previously published in the larger collections In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, coalesce in a magical fashion to become an irresistible piece of Americana, quite the equal of the film in its ability to warm the heart and tickle the funny bone.
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories, by O. Henry
A young woman makes a drastic decision—and her husband has a Christmas surprise in return. A dying girl attaches her fate to that of a leaf. A writer sobs at the sight of a menu. A detective tracks a thief to an unexpected hideout.
An unforgettable collection from a master of the short story—where the ending is never what you expect.
Maybe you’ve got a long flight ahead of you. Maybe you like to listen to audio books while you shop. Maybe you have no qualms about hiding out from your family in a quiet corner of the garage on Christmas day with a book. Whatever the reason, if you feel like tackling a full-length novel this holiday season, I recommend one of these.
Young Adult / Historical Fiction:
I read both of these books with a smile stuck constantly to my face. Richard Peck and Jacqueline Kelly both have a gift for capturing the details of their settings while also creating characters that appeal to modern-day readers. Russell Culver and Calpurnia Virginia Tate both have voices that will stay with you well into the new year.
The Teacher’s Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, by Richard Peck
“If your teacher has to die, August isn’t a bad time of year for it,” begins Richard Peck’s latest novel, a book full of his signature wit and sass. Russell Culver is fifteen in 1904, and he’s raring to leave his tiny Indiana farm town for the endless sky of the Dakotas. To him, school has been nothing but a chain holding him back from his dreams. Maybe now that his teacher has passed on, they’ll shut the school down entirely and leave him free to roam.
No such luck. Russell has a particularly eventful season of schooling ahead of him, led by a teacher he never could have predicted–perhaps the only teacher equipped to control the likes of him: his sister Tansy. Despite stolen supplies, a privy fire, and more than any classroom’s share of snakes, Tansy will manage to keep that school alive and maybe, just maybe, set her brother on a new, wiser course.
As he did in A Long Way from Chicago and A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck creates a whole world of folksy, one-of-a-kind characters here–the enviable and the laughable, the adorably meek and the deliciously terrifying. There will be no forgetting Russell, Tansy, and all the rest who populate this hilarious, shrewd, and thoroughly enchanting novel.
The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly
Calpurnia Virginia Tate is eleven years old in 1899 when she wonders why the yellow grasshoppers in her Texas backyard are so much bigger than the green ones. With a little help from her notoriously cantankerous grandfather, an avid naturalist, she figures out that the green grasshoppers are easier to see against the yellow grass, so they are eaten before they can get any larger.
As Callie explores the natural world around her, she develops a close relationship with her grandfather, navigates the dangers of living with six brothers, and comes up against just what it means to be a girl at the turn of the century.
Debut author Jacqueline Kelly deftly brings Callie and her family to life, capturing a year of growing up with unique sensitivity and a wry wit.
Adult / Present Day:
These two modern-day novels are fast reads that will warm your heart on a cold winter night. Simsion’s story of a socially awkward professor falling in love will make you laugh out loud, and Patchett’s Run is a story about family and what a parent will do to protect his children. This one might make you cry, but it will be the good kind of cry.
The Rosie Project, by Graeme Simsion
Don Tillman, professor of genetics, has never been on a second date. He is a man who can count all his friends on the fingers of one hand, whose lifelong difficulty with social rituals has convinced him that he is simply not wired for romance. So when an acquaintance informs him that he would make a “wonderful” husband, his first reaction is shock. Yet he must concede to the statistical probability that there is someone for everyone, and he embarks upon The Wife Project. In the orderly, evidence-based manner with which he approaches all things, Don sets out to find the perfect partner. She will be punctual and logical—most definitely not a barmaid, a smoker, a drinker, or a late-arriver.
Yet Rosie Jarman is all these things. She is also beguiling, fiery, intelligent—and on a quest of her own. She is looking for her biological father, a search that a certain DNA expert might be able to help her with. Don’s Wife Project takes a back burner to the Father Project and an unlikely relationship blooms, forcing the scientifically minded geneticist to confront the spontaneous whirlwind that is Rosie—and the realization that love is not always what looks good on paper.
The Rosie Project is a moving and hilarious novel for anyone who has ever tenaciously gone after life or love in the face of overwhelming challenges.
Run, by Ann Patchett
Since their mother’s death, Tip and Teddy Doyle have been raised by their loving, possessive, and ambitious father. As the former mayor of Boston, Bernard Doyle wants to see his sons in politics, a dream the boys have never shared. But when an argument in a blinding New England snowstorm inadvertently causes an accident that involves a stranger and her child, all Bernard Doyle cares about is his ability to keep his children—all his children—safe.
Set over a period of twenty-four hours, Run takes us from the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard to a home for retired Catholic priests in downtown Boston. It shows us how worlds of privilege and poverty can coexist only blocks apart from each other, and how family can include people you’ve never even met. As in her bestselling novel Bel Canto, Ann Patchett illustrates the humanity that connects disparate lives, weaving several stories into one surprising and endlessly moving narrative. Suspenseful and stunningly executed, Run is ultimately a novel about secrets, duty, responsibility, and the lengths we will go to protect our children.
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