Table of Contents
- Christmas Pudding – Nancy Mitford
- Children of Green Knowe – Lucy M Boston
- Moominland Midwinter – Tove Jansson
- A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
- Collected Ghost Stories – M.R. James
- Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
- The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
- The Box of Delights – John Masefield
- Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
- The 30 Best Christmas Books of All Time
- 1 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
- 2 Letters From Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
- 3 The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
- 4 The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
- 5 A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
- 6 The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann
- 7 Silent Night: The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub
- 8 The Battered Bastards of Bastogne: The 101st Airborne and the Battle of the Bulge by George Koskimaki
- 9 The Elves and the Shoemaker by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm
- 10 The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen
- 11 Twas The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
- 12 A Letter from Santa Claus by Mark Twain
- 13 The Fir-Tree by Hans Christian Andersen
- 14 What Christmas is as We Grow Older by Charles Dickens
- 16 Christmas Trees by Robert Frost
- 17 Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck
- 18 The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen
- 19 Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May
- 20 How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss
- 21 The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens
- 22 The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
- 23 The Snowman — Raymond Briggs
- 24 The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
- 25 The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
- 26 The Chimes by Charles Dickens
- 27 Amazing Peace by Maya Angelou
- 28 The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern
- 29 Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies
- 30 The True Meaning of Christmas as recited by Linus
- 5 Best Books To Read Over Christmas For A Romantic Holiday Season
- Christmas book clinic special – our experts’ gift ideas
- Q: Please could you recommend great lesbian literary fiction for someone who has read all the obvious?
- A: Emma Donoghue, playwright and novelist, writes:
- Q: My boyfriend is obsessed with politics. Can you recommend some books to guide him through this Brexit Christmas?
- A: Andrew Rawnsley, the Observer’s chief political commentator, writes
- Q: We have nieces and nephews aged one, nine, 11 and 14. What are the best books published this year for these age groups?
- A: Jasbinder Bilan, author of Asha & the Spirit Bird, writes:
- Q: I am struggling to think of what book I can get my dad, a liberal white man in his 60s, about the experiences of people of colour living in the UK, that he would relate to. Maybe nonfiction would be best. Any ideas?
- A: Kit de Waal author of My Name Is Leon, writes:
- Q: What can I get my friend, who is a great admirer of Christopher Logue and Samuel Beckett, in the way of new poetry?
- A: Kate Clanchy, author of Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me and England: Poems from a School, writes:
- Q: I’d like your suggestions for books to give a six-year-old girl who really doesn’t like reading.
- A: Konnie Huq, TV presenter and author of Cookie! … and the Most Annoying Boy in the World, writes:
- Q: What can I buy a widely read gay man in his 60s who likes gay history?
- A: Philip Hensher, novelist and critic, writes:
- Q: My dad is a voracious fantasy reader. He’s a huge JRR Tolkien fan and has read all of George RR Martin, Tad Williams and Robert Jordan. Can you recommend any lesser-known writers?
- A: Eoin Colfer, author of the Artemis Fowl books, writes:
- Q: My father was a doctor and loves the recent books by Henry Marsh, Adam Kay and Paul Kalanithi. What is there in the same vein for me to buy for him to read next?
- Rachel Clarke, author of the forthcoming Dear Life, writes:
- Louise Doughty, author of Platform Seven, writes:
- Q: Could you suggest books to buy for fellow animal lovers, especially books about farm animals, which are often overlooked?
- Charles Foster, author of Being a Beast, writes:
- Q: After trudging through some very dull fiction recently, my request is a simple one: I would like suggestions for gripping, beautifully written modern novels and short stories that I can give as presents. Is that too much to ask?
- Petina Gappah, author of the forthcoming Out of Darkness, Shining Light, writes:
One of our favourite activities at Christmas is curling up by the fire with a good book and whiling away a few happy hours reading.
From novels to autobiographies, Christmas is the perfect time to catch up with your reading list, but what makes the ultimate festive book?
Here are some of our favourite Christmas books, from short stories to novels and books for Children that grown ups will still love.
Christmas Pudding – Nancy Mitford
Formidable matriarch, Lady Bobbin is hosting Christmas at her home in Compton Bobbin and has assembled an eclectic mix of houseguests.
Meanwhile her daughter, Philadelphia, must choose between two suitors – the down on his luck writer Paul or the straight laced aristocrat, Michael.
It’s early Mitford (her second book) but it’s still fun in a PJ Wodehouse fashion. Enjoyably light, festive reading
Christmas Pudding by Nancy Mitford Amazon
Children of Green Knowe – Lucy M Boston
Children who grew up in the 80s will remember the BBC adaptation of Lucy M Boston’s evocative novel in which boarding school pupil Tolly spends Christmas with his great grandmother at the mysterious Green Knowe.
The ancient manor is occupied by ghosts of Tolly’s ancestors from the 17th century, as well as a more sinister presence, which he must eventually face up to. Spooky and atmospheric this is a children’s book to enjoy in the run up to the festive season, preferably in front of a crackling fire.
The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston Amazon
Moominland Midwinter – Tove Jansson
Finnish author and illustrator Tove Jansson is arguably at the top of her game in the fifth instalment of the Moomin series.
While not about Christmas (in fact this story takes place just after New Year), the premise sees the Moomins hibernating through the winter, all except Moomin who wakes up all alone. He discovers his home, unrecognisable and covered in snow, populated by a cast of strange creatures and old friends.
The illustrations of deep drifts of snow, midwinter campfires and ice storms are beautiful, the prose melancholy but hopeful with the promise of spring.
Moominland Midwinter by Tove Jansson Amazon
A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
We all know The Muppets version or Bill Murray’s 80s spin based at a TV network, but returning to the source material is a treat to be indulged in each Christmas.
In short, Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by three ghosts (ok, four if we’re counting Jacob Marley) who will change the course of his life. There is nothing more Christmassy than Dickens’ prose depicting festive dances, games and food. Dickens’ point is still as pertinent as ever. Who can forget the ghosts outside Scrooge’s window and the line: ‘The misery with them all was, clearly, that they sought to interfere, for good, in human matters, and had lost the power for ever.’ Words to remember at this time of year.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens Amazon
Collected Ghost Stories – M.R. James
Scholar MR James would write ghost stories and read them to pupils by the fireside in the run up to Christmas.
Many of the stories are deeply chilling, usually involving priggish clergymen who come to a nasty end through supernatural means.
Highlights include the Mezzotint, about a picture that moves when the viewer isn’t watching – with horrifying consequences naturally, and Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You My Lad where a dry academic unearths an ancient whistle and summons evil forces.
Complete Ghost Stories by M.R James Amazon
Little Women – Louisa May Alcott
Second only to A Christmas Carol for Christmas feels, Little Women tells the story of the selfless and complex March sisters growing up in 19th century America.
Starting during the festive season (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo) this is an emotional and timeless coming of age novel.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott Amazon
The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe – CS Lewis
In Narnia it is ‘always winter and never Christmas’ thanks to the White Witch who has taken over the land.
The Lion The Witch and The Wardrobe isn’t necessarily a Christmas book (although Father Christmas does make a random cameo) but it’s good versus evil set against a snowy backdrop featuring fauns and talking lions.
The start of the story, four children finding a secret world at the back of a wardrobe in a spare room, is irresistible. This is the second in CS Lewis’ rich and detailed Chronicles of Narnia series.
The Box of Delights – John Masefield
A strange children’s book but still beloved by many who remember the spectacular 1986 TV adaptation starring Doctor Who’s Patrick Troughton as Cole Hawlings – the mysterious time traveller with a magical box.
The evil sorcerer, Abner Brown, wants the box and also wants to stop Christmas from happening. Only boarding school pupil Kay Harker, and his plucky band of friends, stands in his way.
The Box of Delights – John Masefield Amazon
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm is a short story in a collection by the masterful Stella Gibbons. And who wouldn’t want a second (third if you count Conference at Cold Comfort Farm) opportunity to revisit the Starkadders at their comically depressing country home?
Most of us could do with a copy of Flora Poste’s The Higher Common Sense by the fictional Abbe Fausse-Maigre at Christmas time. This will have to do instead.
Christmas at Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons Amazon
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The 30 Best Christmas Books of All Time
1 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
“You are fettered,” said Scrooge, trembling. “Tell me why?”
“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”
A Christmas Carol was written in 1843 by Charles Dickens. Short on time and obligated to produce a piece for his editor, Dickens wrote this story using many details from his own life. In the story, he tells the tale of an old, bitter man named Ebenezer Scrooge. Scrooge is visited by three ghosts who take him on a journey through Christmases past, present, and future.
2 Letters From Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
“I hope you will like the little things I have sent you. You seem to be most interested in Railways just now, so I am sending you mostly things of that sort. I send as much love as ever, in fact more. We have both, the old Polar Bear and I, enjoyed having so many nice letters from you and your pets. If you think we have not read them you are wrong; but if you find that not many of the things you asked for have come, and not perhaps quite as many as sometimes, remember that this Christmas all over the world there are a terrible number of poor and starving people. I (and also my Green Brother) have had to do some collecting of food and clothes, and toys too, for the children whose fathers and mothers and friends cannot give them anything, sometimes not even dinner. I know yours won’t forget you. So, my dears, I hope you will be happy this Christmas and not quarrel, and will have some good games with your Railway all together. Don’t forget old Father Christmas, when you light your tree.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien
Every December, J.R.R. Tolkien’s children would receive a letter from ‘Father Christmas’. These letters shared Father Christmas’s experiences that year — from an accident-prone polar bear to goblin wars in caves beneath the house — and are riddled with life lessons. In Letters from Father Christmas, Tolkien has compiled all these short stories into one book for you to enjoy with your children.
3 The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey by Susan Wojciechowski
“The village people didn’t know it, but there was a reason for his gloom, a reason for his grumbling, a reason he walked hunched over, as if he were carrying a great weight on his shoulders…” -Susan Wojciechowski
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey is a story about loss, love, and healing. It’s a gentle reminder to love all, even those who appear unwelcoming, because you may not know their struggle.
4 The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
“The magi, as you know, were wise men — wonderfully wise men — who brought gifts to the newborn Christ-child. They were the first to give Christmas gifts. Being wise, their gifts were doubtless wise ones. And here I have told you the story of two children who were not wise. Each sold the most valuable thing he owned in order to buy a gift for the other. But let me speak a last word to the wise of these days: Of all who give gifts, these two were the most wise. Of all who give and receive gifts, such as they are the most wise. Everywhere they are the wise ones. They are the magi.” -O. Henry
A Gift of the Magi is a beautiful short story about the personal sacrifices we are willing to make for the ones we love.
5 A Christmas Memory by Truman Capote
“My, how foolish I am! You know what I’ve always thought? I’ve always thought a body would have to be sick and dying before they saw the Lord. And I imagined that when He came it would be like looking at the Baptist window: pretty as colored glass with the sun pouring through, such a shine you don’t know it’s getting dark. And it’s been a comfort: to think of that shine taking away all the spooky feeling. But I’ll wager it never happens. I’ll wager at the very end a body realizes the Lord has already shown Himself. That things as they are, just what they’ve always seen, was seeing Him. As for me, I could leave the world with today in my eyes.” ―Truman Capote
A Christmas Memory is a collection of autobiographical stories by Truman Capote. Originally published in 1956, it’s become a Christmas classic riddled with gems like the quote above.
6 The Nutcracker and the Mouse King by E.T.A. Hoffmann
“Kind reader, or listener, whatever may be your name, whether Frank, Robert, Henry, — Anna or Maria, I beg you to call to mind the table covered with your last Christmas gifts, as in their newest gloss they first appeared to your delighted vision. You will then “be able to imagine the astonishment of the children, as they stood with sparkling eyes, unable to utter a word, for joy at the sight before them.” -E.T.A. Hoffmann
The Nutcracker and The Mouse King is a novel written in 1816 by the German author E.T.A. Hoffmann. Although we highly recommend the book, if reading ain’t your style, then check out The Nutcracker Ballet or Disney’s short film (my personal favorite).
7 Silent Night: The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce by Stanley Weintraub
“On both sides in 1915 there would be more dead on any single day than yards gained in the entire year. And there would be nearly four more years of attrition — not to determine who was right, but who was left.”―Stanley Weintraub
In 1914 during World War 1, a Christmas truce spontaneously broke out in the trenches. In Silent Night, Stanley Weintraub provides an in-depth analysis of this forgotten Christmas story.
8 The Battered Bastards of Bastogne: The 101st Airborne and the Battle of the Bulge by George Koskimaki
“December 22nd 1944
To the U.S.A. Commander of the encircled town of Bastogne.
The fortune of war is changing. This time the U.S.A. forces in and near Bastogne have been encircled by strong German armored units. More German armored units have crossed the river Ourthe near Ortheuville, have taken Marche and reached St. Hubert by passing through Hompre-Sibret-Tillet. Libramont is in German hands. There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note. If this proposal should be rejected one German Artillery Corps and six heavy A. A. Battalions are ready to annihilate the U.S.A. troops in and near Bastogne. The order for firing will be given immediately after this two hours’ term. All the serious civilian losses caused by this artillery fire would not correspond with the wellknown American humanity.
The German Commander.”
“December 22, 1944
To the German Commander,
N U T S !
The American Commander”
Although not strictly a ‘Christmas story’, this book covers the Battle of the Bulge, which took place during WWII from December 19, 1944, to January 17, 1945. It was the bloodiest battle of the war, and as many of the soldiers lacked basic cold gear, it was also one of the most physically testing. The Battered Bastards of Bastogne is comprised of 530 soldiers’ accounts of the battle. It’s definitely not a light read.
9 The Elves and the Shoemaker by Jacob Grimm and Wilhelm Grimm
“As soon as it was midnight, there came in two little naked dwarfs; and they sat themselves upon the shoemaker’s bench, took up all the work that was cut out, and began to ply with their little fingers, stitching and rapping and tapping away at such a rate, that the shoemaker was all wonder, and could not take his eyes off them. And on they went, till the job was quite done, and the shoes stood ready for use upon the table.”
The Elves and the Shoemaker is a classic fairy tale by the Grimm brothers. One morning, a shoemaker comes into his shop to find a beautiful pair of shoes has been made for him to sell. Astonished, he determines to find out who he should thank for the service.
10 The Steadfast Tin Soldier by Hans Christian Andersen
“There were once five-and-twenty tin soldiers. They were all brothers, born of the same old tin spoon. They shouldered their muskets and looked straight ahead of them, splendid in their uniforms, all red and blue…. All the soldiers looked exactly alike except one. He looked a little different as he had been cast last of all. The tin was short, so he had only one leg. But there he stood, as steady on one leg as any of the other soldiers on their two. But just you see, he’ll be the remarkable one.” -Hans Christian Andersen
In The Steadfast Tin Soldier, Hans Christian Andersen tells the tale of a tin soldier’s many adventures.
11 Twas The Night Before Christmas by Clement Clarke Moore
“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there”
Although commonly referred to as ’Twas The Night Before Christmas,’ this children’s Christmas poem is actually titled A visit from St. Nicholas. Like many of you I’m sure, reading this on Christmas Eve is a family tradition.
12 A Letter from Santa Claus by Mark Twain
“I have received and read all the letters which you and your little sister have written me…I can read your and your baby sister’s jagged and fantastic marks without any trouble at all. But I had trouble with those letters which you dictated through your mother and the nurses, for I am a foreigner and cannot read English writing well. You will find that I made no mistakes about the things which you and the baby ordered in your own letters — I went down your chimney at midnight when you were asleep and delivered them all myself — and kissed both of you, too…But…there were…one or two small orders which I could not fill because we ran out of stock…”
Similar to Tolkien’s Letters From Father Christmas, Mark Twain’s A Letter from Santa Claus is a letter that was sent from ‘Santa Claus’ to Twain’s 3-year old daughter.
13 The Fir-Tree by Hans Christian Andersen
“‘Rejoice in thy youth,’ said the sunbeam; ‘rejoice in thy fresh growth and in the young life that is in thee.’”
-Hans Christian Andersen
The Fir Tree is a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen. It tells the story of a young tree that wants nothing more than to grow up. In focusing so much on the future, the tree forgets to truly appreciate the present.
14 What Christmas is as We Grow Older by Charles Dickens
“Time was, with most of us, when Christmas Day encircling all our limited world like a magic ring, left nothing out for us to miss or seek; bound together all our home enjoyments, affections, and hopes; grouped everything and everyone around the Christmas fire; and made the little picture shining in our bright young eyes, complete.”-Charles Dickens
In this essay, Charles Dickens discusses what we need to remember about Christmas time as we grow older.
15 The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus by Frank Baum
“It is possible for any man, by good deeds, to enshrine himself as a Saint in the hearts of the people.”
― L. Frank Baum
Two years after publishing Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Frank Baum wrote this story about the life of Santa Claus. Baum follows Santa as he learns to make toys, picks out his reindeer, and visits every child in one night.
16 Christmas Trees by Robert Frost
“He proved to be the city come again
To look for something it had left behind
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees;
My woods — the young fir balsams like a place
Where houses all are churches and have spires.
I hadn’t thought of them as Christmas Trees.
I doubt if I was tempted for a moment
To sell them off their feet to go in cars
And leave the slope behind the house all bare,
Where the sun shines now no warmer than the moon.” -Robert Frost
Christmas Trees is a poem by Robert Frost that “encapsulates the wisdom of a Vermont farmer and the beauty of his country.”
17 Christmas Day in the Morning by Pearl S. Buck
“Ah, that was the true joy of life, the ability to love. Love was still alive in him, it still was.
It occurred to him suddenly that it was alive because long ago it had been born in him when he knew his father loved him. That was it: Love alone could awaken love. And he could give the gift again and again.” -Pearl S. Buck
A boy surprises his father be getting up very early in the morning to take care of the work on the farm. A cute short story about love and family.
18 The Little Match Girl by Hans Christian Andersen
“The matches glowed with a light that was brighter than the noon-day, and her grandmother had never appeared so large or so beautiful. She took the little girl in her arms, and they both flew upwards in brightness and joy far above the earth, where there was neither cold nor hunger nor pain, for they were with God.” -Hans Christian Andersen
Another story from Hans Christian Andersen. In The Little Match Girl, a young girl spends her New Year’s Eve on the streets trying to sell matches. She is poorly dressed for the cold and no one is interested in the matches, but she’s afraid to return home having not sold anything. She seeks shelter in an alley where she imagines herself in Heaven with her grandmother.
19 Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer by Robert L. May
“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
had a very shiny nose
and if you ever saw him
you would even say it glows.
All of the other reindeer
used to laugh and call him names.
They never let poor Rudolph
join in any reindeer games.” -Johnny Marks, songwriter
Robert L. May wrote Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer at the request of the department store company Montgomery Ward. The story was given out for free to over 2 million children who visited the stores during Christmas time of 1939. Robert’s brother-in-law, Johnny Marks, saw the popularity of the story and wrote the song we all know and love. From there, the story took off and now we can’t imagine Christmas without our best bud, Rudolph.
20 How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss
“Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!” ―Dr. Seuss
How The Grinch Stole Christmas! is a children’s story that, even as adults, we enjoy reading every year. Dr. Seuss is great at sneaking deep life lessons into his stories, and in this tale, he demonstrates that Christmas is a spiritual experience, not a material one.
21 The Cricket on the Hearth by Charles Dickens
“Caleb was no sorcerer, but in the only magic art that still remains to us, the magic of devoted, deathless love, Nature had been the mistress of his study; and from her teaching, all the wonder came.” ―Charles Dickens
This is the third book in Charles Dickens’s series of five Christmas novels. The story is about a cricket who serves as a guardian angel to a young family.
22 The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
“My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people do not know.” ―Arthur Conan Doyle
For you Sherlock Holmes fans out there, here is a Christmas mystery.
23 The Snowman — Raymond Briggs
“I remember that winter because it had brought the heaviest snows I had ever seen. Snow had fallen steadily all night long and in the morning I woke in a room filled with light and silence, the whole world seemed to be held in a dream-like stillness. It was a magical day… and it was on that day I made the Snowman.” -Raymond Briggs
This is another one of those books that we read every Christmas when we were little. A little boy makes a snowman and it magically comes to life. Then the snowman takes the boy on a great adventure to the North Pole.
24 The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg
“Seeing is believing, but sometimes the most real things in the world are the things we can’t see.” -Chris Van Allsburg
In the middle of the night, a young boy is woken by a train pulling up outside his house. The train is full of children and it takes them to the North Pole where he gets to meet Santa Claus. This book was turned into a fantastic film that we also recommend checking out.
25 The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson
“The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world. They lied and stole and smoked cigars (even the girls) and talked dirty and hit little kids and cussed their teachers and took the name of the Lord in vain and set fire to Fred Shoemaker’s old broken-down toolhouse.” ―Barbara Robinson
This is a hilarious Christmas story about how the Herdman children learn the Christmas story in their own… uh, unique… way. If you are looking for some laughs, definitely give this one a read.
26 The Chimes by Charles Dickens
“It seems as if we can’t go right, or do right, or be righted,’ said Toby. ‘I hadn’t much schooling, myself, when I was young; and I can’t make out whether we have any business on the face of the earth, or not. Sometimes I think we must have a little; and sometimes I think we must be intruding. I get so puzzled sometimes that I am not even able to make up my mind whether there is any good at all in us, or whether we are born bad. We seem to do dreadful things; we seem to give a deal of trouble; we are always being complained of and guarded against. One way or another, we fill the papers. Talk of a New Year!’ said Toby, mournfully.” ―Charles Dickens
The Chimes is Dickens’s second Christmas short story. The story is about a discouraged elderly messenger who has lost faith in humanity. He is drawn to the belltower of a church where he finds the spirits of the bells and goblin attendants. Through a series of visions, he learns why he must not give up hope in man’s ability to improve.
27 Amazing Peace by Maya Angelou
“Angels and Mortals, Believers and Nonbelievers, look heavenward and speak the word aloud. Peace.” -Maya Angelou
In this deeply inspiring poem, Maya Angelou calls on us to embrace one another despite differing beliefs, seek peace, and enjoy life.
28 The Greatest Gift by Philip Van Doren Stern
“Change me back,” George pleaded. “Change me back — please. Not just for my sake but for others too. You don’t know what a mess this town is in. You don’t understand. I’ve got to get back. They need me here.”
“I understand right enough,” the stranger said slowly. “I just wanted to make sure you did. You had the greatest gift of all conferred upon you — the gift of life, of being a part of this world and taking a part in it. Yet you denied that gift.”
-Philip Van Doren Stern
The Greatest Gift is a short story written by Philip Van Doren Stern in 1943. A suicidal man named George Pratt stands on a bridge on Christmas Eve, ready to jump. Before he can, an odd man approaches him and strikes up a conversation. George admits to the man that he wishes he had never been born. The man tells George that his wish has been granted, and upon returning to his town, George finds that no one recognizes him. After the initial shock, he realizes just how much he values his life and learns that to throw it all away would be a waste.
Fun Fact: This story became the basis for the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life (my all time favorite movie).
29 Miracle on 34th Street by Valentine Davies
“Do you know what the imagination is, Susan?”
The child nodded sagely. “That’s when you see things that aren’t really there.”
“Well, not exactly,” said Kris with a smile. “No — to me the imagination is a place all by itself. A very wonderful country. You’ve heard of the British Nation and the French Nation?”
Susan nodded again.
“Well, this is the Imagination. And once you get there you can do almost anything you want.”
This is the best-selling book adaptation of the famous movie.
30 The True Meaning of Christmas as recited by Linus
One of my favorite Christmas movies is A Charlie Brown Christmas. A memorable scene from this film is when Linus tells Charlie Brown what ‘Christmas is all about.’ He then recites the following passage from The Bible:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding
in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them,
and the glory of the Lord shone round about them:
and they were sore afraid.
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold,
I bring you good tidings of great joy,
which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour,
which is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe
wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the
heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,
good will toward men.
— Book 42, Luke (002:08–14)
The Bible, King James Version
Struggling to find your Christmas spirit? Well, what better place to look than in The Bible itself?
5 Best Books To Read Over Christmas For A Romantic Holiday Season
When was the last time you read something for pleasure? To be honest, it was probably over the summer, before the semester started or work became really busy. You dove head-first into a romance novel, or a humor book that made you laugh out loud at certain parts. (Has anyone out there read Amy Poehler’s Yes Please? It had me rolling on the floor and re-watching my favorite episodes of Parks and Recreation.) But, since then, your reading has consisted of textbooks and emails. Girl, you need to relax this holiday with some of the best books to read over Christmas — and let them make your holiday season bright.
Trust me, these stories will sweep you off your feet and take you on a stroll through a winter wonderland. They’ll wrap you up in an enchanted world and make you believe in magic — or just get your mind off of your own love life for a bit. You see, that’s the beauty behind books and getting emotionally attached to characters created by a few words. With each turn of a page, you’re transported to another time and place, and completely detached from any stress that comes with the holidays.
The difficult part of reading — in my personal opinion — is picking a book. It sounds like a simple task, but sometimes there are just too many options, especially when you haven’t read in a while. Start with these five over Christmas break, OK?
1. ‘Mr. Miracle: A Christmas Novel’ By Debbie Macomber
What would your favorite holiday movies be like as a book? Well, probably something very similar to this novel, which is now a Hallmark Channel original movie.
The story goes like this: Addie Folsom is 24 years old and trying to get her life together. She recently moved back to Tacoma, Washington, and her teacher, Harry Mills, is on a mission to help her sort things out.
When the holidays come around, she’s determined to stay away from her neighbor, Erich, who was Mr. Popular growing up. But then, when they have to spend the holidays together, some surprises come their way. For the girl who’s looking for a festive read, this one is for you.
2. ‘The Enchanted Sonata’ By Heather Dixon Wallwork
Mystery meets music and iconic stories from Christmastime in Heather Dixon Wallwork’s The Enchanted Sonata. One day, Clara Stahlbaum has her life set in stone. She knows exactly who she’s going to marry, and what she’s going to do in the future. But, as a magical nutcracker (and let’s be honest, most 20-somethings) knows, you can never really plan for the future. Suddenly, Clara is swept into a world of palaces, fairies, and spells, and must make some choices.
Based on the story of The Nutcracker Ballet, this is an enchanting novel for someone who wants to escape reality for a bit, and experience the magic that comes with the holidays.
3. ‘Winter Garden: A Novel’ By Kristin Hannah
Kristin Hannah’s Winter Garden: A Novel explores love, loss, and sweet redemption. The story takes place in World War II Russia, and tells the story of daughters and mothers who are at a crucial point in their lives. They’re discovering secrets, recovering from heartbreaks, and finding happiness in between. Although this won’t be your typical romance novel — where one person falls in love with another — it will speak directly to your heartstrings.
4. ‘Every Breath’ By Nicholas Sparks
Leave it to Nicholas Sparks to give you a good book when you need it the most. The author of novels like The Last Song and The Notebook, just came out with another read that will speak to your heart and wildest dreams.
Hope Anderson is 36 and debating a lot of things about her life — her possibly dead-end relationship, her father’s health, and what she wants out of her future. Enter, Tru Walls, a man who’s trying to piece his personal history together, after receiving a letter from someone who claims to be his father. Together, they discover new depths of love and the difficulties behind priorities.
This book will keep you reading all afternoon and into the night. (Grab a second cup of hot chocolate, OK?)
5. ‘Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine’ By Gail Honeyman
One of the latest picks from the Reese Witherspoon Book Club is a novel called, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, written by Gail Honeyman. It tells the tale of a quirky woman who struggles with social interactions, which leaves her fairly isolated. But one day, things start to change for her when she meets two people who open her heart to new possibilities.
The truth is, sometimes the greatest love stories aren’t about relationships or love affairs. Sometimes they are the ones that start with friendship, and lead to us learning to love ourselves.
This holiday season, you’re in need of a little bit of both — the stories that make you fall in love and have dramatic twists with every chapter, and the ones that get you ready to hit the ground running in the new year.
Christmas book clinic special – our experts’ gift ideas
Q: Please could you recommend great lesbian literary fiction for someone who has read all the obvious?
Anonymous, thirtysomething, south-east England
A: Emma Donoghue, playwright and novelist, writes:
Oh dear, yours is an intimidating question. Well, if any of my recommendations are what you’d call obvious, maybe we can agree that they’re good, at least. You’ll have read every word of the holy trinity (Sarah Waters, Ali Smith and Jeanette Winterson), but what about Jackie Kay’s Trumpet? Crossing the Irish Sea, Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends? You’d probably enjoy Sara Collins’s genre-blending (historical/queer/crime) The Confessions of Frannie Langton – I lapped that one up. Angela Chadwick’s XX isn’t exactly literary, but it is a page-turningly plausible tale of the first two-ovum baby and the cultural ructions it causes. Getting very literary again, from Canada (where I live) I’d fervently recommend Ann-Marie MacDonald (Fall on Your Knees, The Way the Crow Flies, Adult Onset). Also, Helen Humphreys – any of her exquisitely crafted fiction, but I have a particular fondness for Afterimage (set on the Isle of Wight, about Julia Margaret Cameron) as well as Machine Without Horses (about a Scottish fly-tier), which somehow manages to analyse the process of writing historical fiction and be a historical novel at the same time. In the US, one of my favourites is Carol Anshaw (eg Lucky in the Corner). Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs might not technically be lesbian, but it’s the most memorable account of a woman’s obsession with another woman and her family that I’ve ever read. OK, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother? are graphic memoirs (by which I mean told in words and pictures rather than rude), not fiction, but they’re uniquely brilliant. Since I keep slipping over the category boundaries of your question anyway, let me mention that Confessions of the Fox by Jordy Rosenberg is a novel about an 18th-century transman that offers thought-provoking meta-brilliance and wit in drawing on, as well as deviating from, lesbian literary tradition. Enjoy!
Q: My boyfriend is obsessed with politics. Can you recommend some books to guide him through this Brexit Christmas?
Anonymous, 27, London
A: Andrew Rawnsley, the Observer’s chief political commentator, writes
You have my sympathies. It sounds as if your boyfriend may be suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Brexit Disorder, a distressingly common condition that our best minds are still struggling to fully comprehend.
Therapy of a kind may be found from Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain. Fintan O’Toole casts a pitilessly acerbic and searingly witty outsider’s eye on our national ailment. Understanding of its pathology will be deepened by reading David Reynolds’s Island Stories in which he locates Brexit in the context of British history. One of his themes is that British – or, more precisely, English – ambivalence about the relationship with continental Europe goes a long way back, a millennium and more.
Excellent though both these books are, I fear there is a danger that they will inflame rather than alleviate your boyfriend’s condition. An alternative course of treatment would be to immerse him in books that remind us that Brexit, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn are relatively minor blips in the affairs of the human species when considered in the broad sweep of history. I always find value in going back to Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, Jared Diamond’s classic analysis of why some civilisations go right and some go wrong. Another favourite is Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of The Great Powers.
Do not under any circumstances expose your boyfriend to For the Record by David Cameron. It will trigger an extreme allergic shock.
Your boyfriend may simply be in need of some cheering up. As an antidote to the pervasive feeling that we are all going to hell in a handcart, I prescribe the late Hans Rosling’s Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think.
Laughter is often the best medicine. I suggest The Little Book of Brexit Bollocks in which Alistair Beaton and Tom Mitchelson have a lot of fun at the expense of the Brexiters and their many fabrications. It will make a good stocking filler.
Please let us know whether your boyfriend responds positively to any of these suggested remedies so that we can help the many millions who are afflicted by OCBD.
Q: We have nieces and nephews aged one, nine, 11 and 14. What are the best books published this year for these age groups?
Catherine, full-time mother, 37, Chichester
Starting with the youngest, your one-year-old would adore sharing the latest book from Patricia Hegarty, On Sleepy Hill. The illustrations are whimsical and the cute peek-through pages are perfect for little fingers to turn. Handa’s Noisy Night, by Eileen Browne, will have them giggling as they guess which animal is making a racket on a special African sleepover.
Pull up a deerskin to the roaring fire and your nine-year-old can dig in to the wintry tale of She Wolf, a Viking adventure by Dan Smith set in the wilds of AD866 Northumbria. Totally different is Zanib Mian’s uplifting Tom Gates-style book, Planet Omar: Accidental Trouble Magnet, which is full of humour and heart.
For your 11-year-old, the beautifully hopeful Where the River Runs Gold by Sita Brahmachari is an empowering adventure about climate change, set in a dystopian future where bees have disappeared and children are made to work on farms. As night falls, double-lock your doors before opening The Switching Hour by Damaris Young – a spine-tingling quest to rescue Amaya’s baby brother, Kaleb, from the dreaded monster, Badeko.
Girl Boy Sea by Chris Vick is perfect for your 14-year-old, taking them on a sea voyage that transports them to a world of near death and the discovery of an unlikely friendship. Sticking with the oceans, they’d love Frances Hardinge’s latest, Deeplight. A story full of imagination, gods, myths and a twisty plot.
Q: I am struggling to think of what book I can get my dad, a liberal white man in his 60s, about the experiences of people of colour living in the UK, that he would relate to. Maybe nonfiction would be best. Any ideas?
Cordelia Tucker O’Sullivan, 27, policy and public affairs professional, London
You’re right, nonfiction may be better, although I would point you in the direction of Diana Evans’s Ordinary People if you think your father might take to a great read about the middle-class black experience, brilliantly portraying a social and psychological drama played out in deceptively “ordinary” events. It’s beautiful and clever.
However, if you think he might prefer nonfiction, then Lovers and Strangers by Clair Wills is terrific. It charts the experience of a whole range of immigrants who came to the UK following the second world war, not just people from the Caribbean but from Latvia, Malta, Italy, Cyprus and Ireland. It also explores how these communities lived with one another, the alliances and tensions, the romances and suspicions, with humour and insight. Some were prisoners of war, some were refugees, some were coming to the motherland where they had been promised jobs, security and a warm welcome. It’s very thoroughly done without being dry and academic and was shortlisted for the Orwell prize last year.
My Name Is Why, the memoir of Lemn Sissay, is a bit leftfield and a challenging read if only because it’s terrible, unbelievable and utterly true. It is the story of his life as a black boy in the care system and his efforts to forge an identity, to feel whole and loved despite being confounded at every turn. Yes, race is a key factor in his treatment (he has recently been reunited with his Ethiopian family), but it’s also a story of dislocation and harsh treatment by the very people who should be looking after our most vulnerable children.
The happy ending is Lemn himself, full of life and forgiveness, with the kind of wisdom that comes from a long hard look at the monster under the bed.
Q: What can I get my friend, who is a great admirer of Christopher Logue and Samuel Beckett, in the way of new poetry?
Philippa Varcoe, 46, London
Is your friend a fan of Christopher Logue’s versions of Homer? If so, he should already have a copy of Alice Oswald’s Memorial, about the war dead in the Iliad. And if he’s soaked up that then he might be one of the best readers of Oswald’s new book Nobody, which takes a Homeric bard to a rocky island in the Aegean and leaves him there to sing of a “water damaged” war. For another radical classical update, there’s Fiona Benson’s magnificent Vertigo & Ghost, which presents a startling vision of Zeus the rapist, or Richard Osmond’s Rock, Paper, Scissors, which takes Osmond’s own experience of the Borough Market attacks and transmogrifies it through juxtaposed ancient texts, from Beowulf and the Qur’an, to present a truly Logue-like vision of elemental, amoral violence. War as a bodily, earthly experience is one of the strongest themes of Logue: your friend might find something similar in Jay Bernard’s intensely moving Surge, which memorialises the fires at Grenfell and at New Cross with such power that the poems seem to lay the dead in front of us.
For a Beckett fan, though, Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky might appeal even more. This absorbing, tender, singular book is part drama, part sequence, powerfully and essentially international – Kaminsky is a Russian immigrant to the US – and always at the thrilling boundaries of language. If he wants more language being taken to bits, there is Alison Winch’s Darling, It’s Me, Rebecca Tamás’s Witch and Sophie Robinson’s Rabbit to enjoy, all of them witty, bizarre and frightening in the proper Beckettian manner. If it’s the Irish Beckett that your friend loves, though – the chattering, mordant voices of Happy Days – then he should enjoy Martina Evans’s terrifying tales of peace, Now We Can Talk Openly About Men.
Q: I’d like your suggestions for books to give a six-year-old girl who really doesn’t like reading.
Gill Fitzgerald, 61, teacher, Herts
For any six-year-old who has a great sense of humour and loves anything off the wall, The Treehouse Books series by Andy Griffiths is fabulous. It’s about two guys trying to write a book, oh… and their 13-storey tree house to which they add 13 more floors with every book and where you can find all sorts, from swimming pools to rollercoasters.
I was a reluctant reader myself before stumbling upon Superfudge by Judy Blume, which is actually the third in the hilarious five-book Fudge series. I may have been a little older than your six-year-old, but I think it was the first book I read of my own volition that didn’t have many, if any, pictures. I devoured it. It’s about a character called Peter whose mum, much to his horror, is having a baby; he thinks his little brother Fudge is more than enough. The latest edition of the series features gorgeous cover art from Emily Gravett.
Pip Jones’s Izzy Gizmo is a feisty, creative young girl who loves inventing things and carries her tool kit wherever she goes, so she should appeal to any inventive, determined young things. Sara Ogilvie’s exuberant pictures may attract any reluctant readers too.
Following in the footsteps of her grandfather, Sophie Dahl’s children’s book debut is magical. Madame Badobedah is an intriguing new guest at the Mermaid hotel, where Mabel lives with her parents. Little does Mabel know but she and this suspicious newcomer – who Mabel decides must be a “supervillain” – will become great friends. Perfect for those who like a whimsical adventure, with beautiful pictures by Lauren O’Hara.
Q: What can I buy a widely read gay man in his 60s who likes gay history?
Martin, sixtysomething runner, north-east England
A: Philip Hensher, novelist and critic, writes:
Many brilliant books have been published in the past half century or so about particular aspects of gay male history that your friend might appreciate – James Davidson’s The Greeks and Greek Love or John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe would go down a storm with someone serious. Graham Robb’s Strangers, about gay life in the 19th century, is not only very well informed but seriously funny.
One of the most enjoyable books on the subject this year was Paul Baker’s Fabulosa!, an excavation of the now pretty well lost gay language of Polari, richly evocative and entertaining. Oliver Soden’s new life of Michael Tippett is a terrific account of a gay man living his life more or less openly throughout the 20th century which your friend would enjoy, particularly if he’s musical, as they used to say.
Or why not go directly to the original voices and give a beautiful copy of a gay classic? The Library of America’s handsome three-volume set of James Baldwin, for instance. Or go vintage – online secondhand stores will offer you a complete edition of all Ronald Firbank’s novels, for instance, and a first edition of EM Forster’s Maurice is very reasonably priced.
As it’s Christmas, a bit of ribaldry doesn’t go amiss in the form of art books. I’m hoping for Michael Glover’s Thrust: A Spasmodic Pictorial History of the Codpiece in Art in my stocking, as it were. The art book I’ve had most success with over the years, if you can track it down, is Chad States’s Cruising, a collection of photographs of old-school cruising grounds in public parks. From most points of view, it’s a series of pictures of trees and bushes. To recipients of a certain age, this has proved a present supplying endless hilarity. There is nothing nicer than a gift that you feel only the giver and the receiver can be certain of understanding.
Q: My dad is a voracious fantasy reader. He’s a huge JRR Tolkien fan and has read all of George RR Martin, Tad Williams and Robert Jordan. Can you recommend any lesser-known writers?
Anonymous, 25, Houston, Texas
I think your father, Anon Snr, and I would be fast friends, and may I be so bold as to say you have come to the right place with your fantasy-centric question. JRR and George RR are certainly the most celebrated double Rs in fantasy literature, but there are other initials that bear inspection. CS, for example. Many people mistakenly believe that the Narnia books belong in that most dreadful of categories: just for children. But The Lord of the Rings novels were once considered children’s books, too, so tell pater to throw aside his preconceptions and dive through that wardrobe and into a parallel universe of divine lions, snow queens and Turkish delight. Your dad will not regret the visit, and he will never fully return. A good book is a good book, no matter what age the reader or what label people stick on the spine.
Another perfect example of both this and more timely timeless fantasies is Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone, which follows heroine Zélie as she attempts to restore magic to the kingdom of Orïsha. If the first book is anything to go by, the series is destined to be a blockbuster. However, at the moment this is only one book, so if your dad loves a tower of tomes point him towards Raymond E Feist’s Magician series. He will thank you for the tip once he comes back from the Kingdom of the Isles.
Feist’s Riftwar cycle is rightly one of the most venerated fantasy series ever committed to paper, and Pug’s odyssey from accomplice to (spoiler alert) magician is as twisty and epic a journey as ever undertaken by hobbit, orc or troll – hence the oft-quoted saying: “If it’s a Feist, don’t think twice.” Actually, I just made that up. It’s terrible, don’t tell Raymond. But corny or not, it’s true, and if your dad enjoys Magician, as I feel confident he will, then Feist has more than two dozen excellent works that should keep your father going for a few years. And if you’re not convinced by my case, just look at the man’s name: Raymond E Feist. Floating initial. Case closed.
Q: My father was a doctor and loves the recent books by Henry Marsh, Adam Kay and Paul Kalanithi. What is there in the same vein for me to buy for him to read next?
Anonymous, executive assistant, 48, London
For sheer electric tension and doomed heroic medicine, the standout medical memoir of 2019, David Nott’s War Doctor, can’t be matched. Your father will be enthralled by Nott’s descriptions of being trapped under fire in a makeshift Sarajevo operating theatre, helplessly trying to clamp a child’s torn aorta with his own gloved hand. Every doctor I know secretly yearns to be as brave and admirable. Nott’s exploration of his addiction to danger zones – the psychological lure of performing life-saving surgery in some of the most deadly places on Earth – is every bit as compelling.
Closer to home, but no less blood-soaked, is Sue Black’s superb All That Remains. You can’t help but warm to this retired professor of anatomy and forensic anthropology who chose “the many faces of death” as her medical speciality, yet is herself so vividly alive. Like Nott, Black travelled the world at times, sifting maggots, bullets and human body parts in war and disaster zones. Despite it all, she remains convinced that our essential humanity transcends the very worst of which our species is capable.
New York-based oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee’s magnificent The Emperor of All Maladies remains the most moving book from a clinician turned scientist I have ever read. Mukherjee makes cancer his central character. His history of humankind’s most feared disease turns malignancy into a cunning, shape-shifting, bullet-dodging adversary – part Voldemort, part Moriarty. The descriptions of molecular malfunction are the most exquisite you could ever imagine.
For sex, searing honesty and scalpel-sharp prose, surgeon Gabriel Weston’s slim volume Direct Red is a mesmerising account of a woman navigating the locker-room machismo of the predominantly male surgical world. And lastly – for sheer bloody vivacity, though not written by a doctor – Lindsey Fitzharris’s The Butchering Art is a gloriously grisly, pulsatingly repulsive, deservedly award-winning biography of the Victorian pioneer of aseptic surgery Joseph Lister. Delicious – and utterly irresistible.Catnip for anyone, retired doctor or otherwise.
Mark, 54, electrician, Manchester
It’s a shame you think your wife’s profession is out as a subject, because there’s a terrific novel called Midwives by the American author Chris Bohjalian, who’s huge in the US but less well known than he deserves to be here. A midwife attends a home birth one freezing Vermont winter as an ice storm descends – she saves the baby’s life, but the mother dies and the midwife is prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter. OK, maybe a bad choice for your wife, but it’s a great read.
If she enjoys romance, how about some classics that have romantic love as a driver but also offer a great deal more? Emma is a great start to discovering Jane Austen. Howards End by EM Forster begins with a romantic misadventure but develops into a touching and true story of the Schlegel sisters (and if she liked that, she’d also like A Room With a View).
She would probably also love I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, which centres on the Mortmain sisters and their desire for love while living in genteel poverty in a crumbling 1930s castle. Its famous first line will give you a clue to the tone of the book: “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.”
If you’re looking for bittersweet and contemporary, you can’t go wrong with anything by Deborah Moggach or David Nicholls.
Q: Could you suggest books to buy for fellow animal lovers, especially books about farm animals, which are often overlooked?
Julie Gray, 61, freelance editor, Bloomington, Indiana, US
Don’t go first to the farm. You’re a wild thing, even if you wear a suit, and even the most miserable battery chicken is only relatively unwild. Rewild yourself by swimming with Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter through the rivers of Devon, being hunted across fields by red-faced and red-coated squires (Wild Lone by BB, AKA Denys Watkins-Pitchford), dodging goose-shot on the Wash and riding the sky roads (BB’s Manka the Sky Gipsy), duelling with an obsessed trapper on Dartmoor (Brian Carter’s A Black Fox Running), and living in an ancient and highly political rabbit city in a Berkshire hill (Richard Adams’s Watership Down.
Then start wondering whether it’s intellectually disreputable to think that you can understand anything about animal minds. It’s not: anthropomorphism is a good first guess. Darwin knew it. His intuitions about animal emotion are exhilaratingly confirmed and amplified in Carl Safina’s Beyond Words (focusing on elephants, wolves and orcas) and Frans de Waal’s Mama’s Last Hug (mainly primates, including man). Be prepared for tears, shame at your membership of a psychopathic species, and the loss of a lot of comforting presumptions.
By now you’ll have a better idea of what sort of creature you are (it’s nature writing’s main job to give you that) and it’ll be time to look at what happens when humans meet non-humans. It can be mutually redemptive (Gavin Maxwell’s Ring of Bright Water) or malignant (Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, and Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott’s Farmageddon). Most modern farm animals (most of which are birds) have wretched lives, deprived of the possibility of being themselves. It needn’t be so.
The last couple of suggestions will have made you thoroughly depressed. Pick up anything by James Herriot, or by his North Yorkshire veterinary successors Peter Wright (The Yorkshire Vet) and Julian Norton (Horses, Heifers and Hairy Pigs) to cheer yourself up.
Q: After trudging through some very dull fiction recently, my request is a simple one: I would like suggestions for gripping, beautifully written modern novels and short stories that I can give as presents. Is that too much to ask?
Juliet Humphreys, 56, teacher, Uxbridge
Top of my list would be the novels Olive Kitteridge by the American author Elizabeth Strout and the sequel, Olive, Again. I know that there is much pleasure to be found in encountering people like yourself in fiction (do please also consider giving them to yourself as a gift: Olive is a retired schoolteacher!), but there is also joy in getting to know people you are likely never to meet in real life, in a setting you are unlikely to enter, and still recognise the truthfulness of their experience. I love these books.
I can’t tell you how delighted I am that you want to give short stories as gifts. Zadie Smith recently published her first short story collection, Grand Union. It is bursting with what I call “absolute Zadieness”: wit and intelligence, clever observations and startling insights, shot through with a sense of both fun and wonder. I would also recommend Manchester Happened by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi, from Uganda, and Better Never Than Late (what a wonderful title!) by Chika Unigwe from Nigeria. These two collections are part of my Christmas reading this year, so I am recommending them purely on the basis of the supreme gifts of their authors, who oth have an ability to make you look at familiar things in new ways.
I was thrilled to learn recently that one of my favourite authors, the New Zealander Eleanor Catton, has written the screenplay for the film, out in February 2020, of my second favourite Jane Austen novel, Emma (my favourite is Persuasion). I absolutely love this witty, bucolic book. It is Austen’s second longest novel, after Mansfield Park: there are no villains, nothing much happens, and yet it is riveting and propulsive. I know you asked for modern novels but this is a classic that is modern in sensibility. Poor, deluded Emma. The way Austen narrates the story from her unreliable perspective is unparalleled. No wonder it is her most filmed title. Happy giving!
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