SB Note: We are thrilled to welcome back Jennifer Puryear of Bacon on the Bookshelf after an almost two-year hiatus of book recommendations here at StyleBlueprint. Her recommendations have always been our gold standard and from the descriptions below, we think you’ll agree!
The New Year beckons with sparkle and shine and hope, yet darkness descends on us each winter afternoon. Errands can wait once the sun goes down. It’s time to get home and light a candle. The season of cozy reading is upon us — when we seek books that cheer and illuminate.
10 Cozy Post-Holiday Reads
Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford
My top recommendation right now is Light Perpetual by Francis Spufford, the most beautiful book I’ve read all year. The novel begins in November of 1944 at a department store in south London. Mothers are shopping, their children in tow. But it is a time of war — of bombs falling from the sky — and a great explosion tears through the store and beyond. We begin at a historical moment and then travel into the dream world of imagination. We meet five children who might, instead, have lived. We see them where they begin — as trouble-makers or pleasers, talented or troubled — and see them grow into their personalities and identities. We see them shift and stretch over time.
In Spufford’s dream-vision, we yearn and suffer, grow and learn with these children who lived. We marry too early or too late or the wrong person or the right; we have children (or don’t) and love them, and fail them, and inspire them; we lose jobs and find them; we live with dark regrets and bright hopes. Through these characters’ eyes, we witness London’s transformation, as Black and Brown immigrants from India and Africa weave their patterns into the fabric of the city. Sorrows and troubles do tend to find them (and us). But also, life is a gift; a change in the “soul’s weather” is always possible, for the imagined children and for us. Light Perpetual is the most radiant book I’ve read since A Gentleman in Moscow.
Light Perpetual recently made The New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2021, among other honors.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr enchants and delights in an entirely different way. It’s a marvelous jigsaw puzzle, like Doerr’s megahit, All The Light We Cannot See. Short chapters introduce characters remote in time and space from each other, and initially, it’s hard to imagine how their lives will intertwine or connect.
The story begins on “the Argos,” in “Mission Year 65.” Our heroine, Konstance, believes herself to be the only surviving crew member, and she’s desperate to get out of “Vault One.” The next chapter takes us to Constantinople in the year 1439, where young sisters Anna and Maria just barely survive as wards of a nunnery. Outside the walls of the city, in the dense forests of Bulgaria, we meet Omeir, who will be forcibly conscripted into the army that lays siege to Constantinople. Another storyline begins in small-town Idaho in 2002 with a waitress named Bunny and her son with special needs, and another begins in a POW barracks in North Korea in 1951.
Trust me, it all makes sense in the end. Here’s a clue: A story — a manuscript — links them all. Cloud Cuckoo Land is a weirdly awkward title for a beautiful book about books, libraries, and the power of stories to sustain us.
Cloud Cuckoo Land was selected as a National Book Award Finalist for 2021, among other honors.
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout
Cloud Cuckoo Land and Light Perpetual paint in broad strokes, covering lifetimes and centuries, while two other terrific novels of the season take a more intimate approach. In Oh William!, Elizabeth Strout continues her series that began with My Name is Lucy Barton. Lucy, you may recall, grew up in an impoverished, isolated, and abusive home (think Educated, by Tara Westover). In My Name is Lucy Barton, we saw her escape and transcend that background. At the beginning of Oh William!, we learn that her beloved second husband David has recently died. But we’re not thinking about him. It’s William instead — the first husband — who takes center stage. He and Lucy have stayed in touch over the years, as ex-spouses sometimes do. Like Lucy, William has suffered a great loss as the book begins: His third wife has just left him. In these strange days of grief, William invites Lucy to travel with him (platonically) to Maine to find his long-lost half-sister.
Their trip — and the novel itself — moves along at a quiet, gentle pace. The big question it asks is this: How well can we ever hope to understand our own motivations and choices, or those of others, even those we know best? Are we doomed to confusion and delusion, despite our best efforts? Together, Lucy and William muddle together towards greater understanding. Their story offers hope that we can help each other — if imperfectly — on our journeys.
Oh William! recently made The New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2021, among other honors.
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi
Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi offers fewer consolations, perhaps, but also greater pleasures. It has brighter, sharper edges (think broken glass glinting in the midday winter sun). Set in modern-day India, it’s the story of a complicated mother-daughter relationship. (Aren’t they all?) Antara, the daughter, tells her version of their story, and at first, our sympathies lie entirely with her. Her mother, Tara, rebelled against expectations, dragging young Antara out of their home and into life on the streets, then to an Ashram, then into later entanglements with men. Antara yearned for comfort and stability and eventually found it in her own marriage to an American of Indian descent.
As her mother ages and slips into dementia, Antara finds herself in the role of caretaker. “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure,” she reflects, in the first (startling) line of the book. And yet she does care for her mother, attentively. Perhaps she has not been entirely innocent, it emerges, as the plot thickens. Perhaps, over time, she has chosen her revenge. Burnt Sugar takes you into the depths of love and cruelty and into the heart of domestic life in India. I felt that I’d traveled both abroad AND inwards.
Burnt Sugar recently made The New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2021, among other honors.
Matrix by Lauren Groff
Matrix by Lauren Groff also took me on an astonishing journey. “It is 1158 and the world bears the weariness of late Lent,” as we begin. Marie, a royal bastard, has been banished from the court of Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. A “giantess of a maiden” — unwanted, everywhere — she despairs, though she has been sent with some honor to become the new prioress of an impoverished abbey. She tries with all her heart to win her way back to court instead. In time, Marie’s dreams shift, and holy visions come to her.
Matrix is set squarely in its time and place — late medieval England and France — with the historical figure of Eleanor of Aquitaine never far from the center of the story. At the same time, it stretches into the realm of fantasy, as Marie becomes a kind of queen of her own utopia. Groff considers the kinds of love that might flourish in an all-female setting. She considers the ways women may acquire and retain power in the world. She considers pride, ambition, and devotion. Her words take flight, even as Marie and Queen Eleanor fly, perhaps, too close to the sun.
Matrix is a National Book Award Finalist for 2021, among other honors.
Here are five more books I hope to read in this season of darkness and light …
Bring Your Baggage and Don’t Pack Light: Essays by Helen Ellis
Here’s what the publisher has to say about Bring Your Baggage:
“When Helen Ellis and her lifelong friends arrive for a reunion on the Redneck Riviera, they unpack more than their suitcases: stories of husbands and kids; lost parents and lost jobs; powdered onion dip and photographs you have to hold by the edges; dirty jokes and sunscreen with SPF higher than they hair-sprayed their bangs senior year; and a bad mammogram. It’s a diagnosis that scares them, but could never break their bond. Because women pushing fifty won’t be pushed around.
In these twelve gloriously comic and moving essays, Helen Ellis dishes on married middle-age sex, sobs with a theater full of women as a psychic exorcises their sorrows, gets twenty shots of stomach bile to the neck to get rid of her double chin, and gathers up the courage to ask, ‘Are you there, Menopause? It’s Me, Helen.’”
Doesn’t this sound fun?
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.F. Schwab
Recommended by author Brad Meltzer:
“V.E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue was my favorite book of the year. Period. Addie LaRue doesn’t want a boring, ordinary life – she wants more. So she (naturally) makes a deal with the devil, who grants her immortality with this twist: No one remembers her. Ever. It’s the cruelest of punishments, especially for our self-obsessed age: Her legacy is gone. She’s instantly forgotten by everyone she encounters. Indeed, for 300 years, no one remembers Addie. Until, one day, someone does. It’s a bottle-rocket of a moment, but what makes it even better is, well … I’m not ruining it for you … The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue will have you thinking about your own deals with the devil — especially the ones you make every day.”
The Souvenir Museum by Elizabeth McCracken
From NPR’s review:
“Elizabeth McCracken’s The Souvenir Museum begins with one of the funniest short stories I’ve read in a long time. It’s about a short, round American who meets her newish boyfriend’s angular English family all at once and utterly unprepared in damp Ireland, at the wedding of the middle of his three sisters.
The Valerts, like most McCracken characters, are wonderfully eccentric, but they are also as chilly and off-putting as the weather. Hilariously so. McCracken, who is married to English-born writer and illustrator Edward Carey, nails these brusque Brits, who dress like stable hands and are devoted to punishing country walks and scatological humor. When Sadie’s boyfriend, whom she knows as Jack though his family calls him Lenny, asks how she’s doing a few hours into their stay, she says, “I’ve had anxiety dreams more relaxing.”
I had to stop reading The Irish Wedding several times to explain to my husband why I was laughing so hard. I kept thinking: I wish I were reading a whole book about these people.
Wish fulfilled, at least in part: Five of the 12 stories planted evenly throughout The Souvenir Museum involve Jack and Sadie…”
Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead
Short-listed for the Booker Prize, 2021. From the Booker Prize website:
“The lives of a fearless female aviator and the actress who portrays her on screen decades later intersect in Maggie Shipstead’s vivid, soaring novel.
Marian Graves was a daredevil all her life, from her wild childhood in the forests of Montana to her daring wartime Spitfire missions. In 1950, she sets off on her ultimate adventure, the Great Circle — a flight around the globe. She is never seen again. Half a century later, Hadley Baxter, a scandal-ridden Hollywood actress, whose own parents perished in a plane crash, is irresistibly drawn to play Marian Graves. This role will lead her to uncover the real mystery behind the vanished pilot.”
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
Recommended by author Joe Posnanski:
“Colson Whitehead rekindled something in me in 2021, and for that, I will always be grateful … ever since the pandemic began, for reasons unknown, my reading became painfully predictable … I must admit that I felt in something of a reading rut. Mr. Whitehead’s Harlem Shuffle pulled me out of it, not only because it’s as gorgeously written as all of his books but it’s just so much damn fun. He reminded me just how thrilling it is to lose myself inside a book — and a murder mystery, no less!”
May you lose yourself — and find yourself — in your cozy winter reads.
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