The beautiful dream of Christmas is past, but the pleasures of fireside reading remain. Send the kids to Grandma’s (or if you’re grandma, send them home!), and curl up with one of the following six novels perfect for right now. If you’re more enchanted with the wonders of the natural world, skip to the end of the post for a nonfiction recommendation.
My top pick for winter is News of the World, by Paulette Jiles, recently a finalist for the National Book Award. Set in 1880s Reconstruction-era Texas, News of the World tells the story of Captain Kidd, a man who travels the length of Texas on horseback delivering the news to rapt audiences who don’t have regular access to a newspaper. His wife has passed away, his daughters have married and moved east, and Captain Kidd is an old man living in a dangerous world. Texas — semi-lawless — holds threats for whites, blacks and Indians alike. Kidd agrees to transport a young white girl recently rescued from the Kiowa but soon realizes he’s taken on more than he’d bargained for. Johanna speaks no English and keeps trying to escape back into the hands of her captors. Kidd is honor-bound to return her to her distant and forgotten relatives, but over time, he comes to question his mission. The fierce and gentle love that grows between them during their frightening journey is the great, surprising beauty of this 200-page novel. Jiles — a poet as well as a novelist — makes every word count.
Cold winter nights simply beg for historical fiction, and another book you’ll want to settle in with (when you’re not watching “The Crown”) is Danielle Dutton’s daring Margaret the First, a novel based on the life of Margaret Cavendish. Born in 1623, Margaret grew up on her family’s estate, an imaginative girl, self-proclaimed Queen of the Tree-people. Attending Queen Marie de Medici as a teen, Margaret caught the eye of William Cavendish, 30 years her senior and of higher noble birth. He shocked polite society by marrying her. In the years of upheaval that followed — the Parliamentarian revolt, the beheading of Charles II and finally the Royal Restoration — William and Margaret’s fortunes were always precarious. Margaret grew from a shy girl who listened behind closed doors to the talk of London, scandalous for her philosophical and fantastical writings and her bold dress. “Mad Madge! Mad Madge!” the crowds cried when they spotted her in her carriage. Her husband asks, “What is it you want, my dear?”
But Margaret wanted the whole house to move three feet to the left. It was indescribable what she wanted. She was restless. She wanted to work. She wanted to be thirty people. She wanted to wear a cap of pearls and a coat of right blue diamonds. To live as nature does, in many ages, in many brains.
In 1667, Margaret was the first woman allowed to attend a lecture of the Royal Society of London, the preeminent scientific and philosophical group of its day. Danielle Dutton brings her to life in a spare novel that powerfully conveys the limitations of life for a woman in the 17th century and the exciting developments in scientific thought of the time. Dutton’s language both brings you close to Margaret and keeps her at a remove — think Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall.
Margaret the First is the molecular cuisine of historical fiction — tiny, unusual, ambitious. But sometimes you need a more substantial meal. Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow is a big, beautiful feast of a novel set in early and mid-20th century Russia. You may already know and love Towles’ first novel, Rules of Civility, and I enjoyed A Gentleman in Moscow even more! Our hero, the Count, lately parted from most of his belongings and his title by the Bolsheviks, has been sentenced to house arrest at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. He’s been warned in no uncertain terms that he’ll be shot if he leaves the premises, which leaves the question: how shall he spend the rest of his life?
But for the virtuous who have lost their way, the Fates often provide a guide. On the island of Crete, Theseus had his Ariadne and her magical ball of thread to lead him safely from the lair of the Minotaur. Through those caverns where ghostly shadows dwell, Odysseus had his Tiresias just as Dante had his Virgil. And in the Metropol Hotel, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov had a nine-year-old girl by the name of Nina Kulikova.
Nina is the Eloise of the Metropol, and she introduces the Count to its many hidden places and secrets. Hopes and sorrows in this book are mostly gentle, with room for love and self-knowledge to grow, despite the sharp edges of history outside the hotel’s doors.
Hope and sorrow are a far more searing pair in Adam Haslett’s Imagine Me Gone, which imagines a family coping with mental illness. The story begins with Margaret, a young American expat working in a library in London when she meets John. He is everything she ever dreamed of — smart, funny, hard-working, sociable — and that accent! Shortly before their wedding, he has an “episode,” requiring hospitalization for several months; this is the first she learns of his mental illness. Three children later, and an ocean away, the oldest sibling, Michael — bright, peculiar, intensely loving — also suffers from paralyzing anxiety and depression. Imagine Me Gone presents the hardest of truths: that some people simply cannot be “fixed,” no matter how much love and compassion is brought to bear. It gives no easy answers about how to love such a person when he is your husband, your son, your brother or your friend. But it does not look away — and you are not left bereft. When humans are doing the absolute best they can, the story will never be only dark. Haslett goes deep into the dark and into the light. Imagine Me Gone was nominated for the National Book Award this year.
Everyone’s talking about this year’s winner of the National Book Award, The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead. Whitehead imagines a 19th century America in which an actual underground railroad — engines, tracks, freight cars — helps slaves move north and west as they flee their bondage. The book begins as a realist work of fiction, with Cora and Caesar escaping a brutal cotton plantation in Georgia, but it subsequently veers into magical territory, with their stops along the way cataloguing a variety of horrors blacks in America have experienced over time and place. It is suspenseful, hard to read and hard to put down.
The book you may not have heard of, also about slavery, is Underground Airlines, by Ben Winters. You’ll recognize the smartphones, you’ll recognize the Happy Meals, but there’s one big difference in Winters’ alternative America: the Civil War was never fought, and in four states, slavery remains. Winters’ novel tells the story of a bounty hunter named Victor, his quarry, Jackdaw, and what Victor learns during the course of that pursuit. Victor is particularly good at his job tracking down runaway slaves; it helps that he’s black. Winters, on the other hand, is white. “No one tried to talk me out of it, but my wife at one point said, ‘Boy, it would be better if you were black,’” Mr. Winters recalled in an interview with The New York Times. He knew he wanted to write about the legacy of slavery — and he knew he wanted to tell a story through a first-person narrator. “The whole art form is about empathy,” Mr. Winters continued. “No, I will never know what it’s really like to be black, but I can, through as much imagination as I can bring to it, create this individual.” Underground Airlines is making many “Best of 2016” lists, and it’s on my list to read this winter.
Now, for the science and nature lovers among us … you’ll want to know about The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate, if you don’t already! (It’s an international and New York Times bestseller.) German forester and author Peter Wohlleben began his career in the commercial forestry industry assessing hundreds of trees daily for their market value and readiness for the mill. “I knew about as much about the hidden life of trees as a butcher knows about the emotional life of animals,” he writes. Over time, he came to understand and appreciate the way trees live interdependently over the course of their lives, thriving and competing as individuals and as a series of overlapping communities. You can talk about these things in the language of science or of poetry, and he does both in chapters with titles like “Friendships,” “Slowly Does It,” “Trees Aging Gracefully” and “Immigrants.” This book is like nothing I’ve ever read, and if at times Wohlleben errs on the side of poetry, I’ll meet him there.
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